Wednesday, 16 Jul 2014

Written by Rabbi Pete Tobias

The portion of Mattot nestles almost anonymously at the end of the book of Numbers. More often than not in the cycle of Torah readings, it gets attached to the following portion Massei. In those instances I am sure that most progressive rabbis opt for something from the latter portion, which provides, for example, opportunities to talk about the enlightened biblical distinction between murder and manslaughter and the protection of one who has committed the latter from immediate revenge. On those occasions when Mattot stands alone, I suspect we are all grateful for our practice of choosing just a short section of the weekly portion, the themes of which are a) the emphasis of men having the power to overrule vows made by women, b) war and genocide and c) settlement of the land.

The place of women in religion has always been a source of contention. The indisputable reality is that the majority of ancient religious texts were written by men in a male dominated society, and the rules, regulations and accounts invariably reflect that. How pleasing, therefore, to be able to be writing a D’var Torah in a week when the Church of England has finally, if somewhat belatedly, decided to allow the appointment of women bishops. Progressive Judaism can be proud of the fact that female rabbis have been an integral part of our tradition for almost four decades, though measured against the scale of history, this is a laughably short period of time and the fact that it took until the late twentieth century for these ground breaking events to occur – and the fact that women still suffer appalling discrimination in many cultures throughout the world – is testimony to the very slow speed at which humankind develops.

The same can certainly be said for the second of the themes that emerge from this week’s portion. Numbers chapter 31 is an astonishing account of divinely sanctioned genocide – an attack on the Midianites which is introduced as being nikmat Adonai – the revenge of the Eternal One. Progressive Jews recognise that the Hebrew Bible is a product of an era when a god was a military ‘mascot’ who demanded fierce loyalty from his (for biblical military gods were most definitely male) followers and whose might was demonstrated by the invariably merciless treatment meted out to those perceived as enemies. This perspective enables us to step back from the horrific barbarism of some of its contents and consider this not only as a window onto the behaviour and attitude of our ancestors, but more importantly to recognise how remarkable it was that our ancient ancestors succeeded in shaping a religion that emphasised justice and tolerance in a society where those qualities were conspicuous by their absence.

The conversation between Moses and the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad about their choice of where to settle in the land is one that tells of the conquest and settlement of biblical Canaan. Historically it is, of course, extremely improbable that all twelve of the Israelite tribes arrived together on the borders of the Promised Land; rather the story in chapter 32 of Numbers was composed at a time when these tribal groups long settled in the land wished to become part of the Israelite people, to offer an explanation for their geographical distance from the other tribal groups. But once again the concern of the authors of this account is to emphasise the unity of Israel, the occupation of the land of Canaan and the responsibility of the different tribal groups to accept their responsibility for their fellow Israelites’ military exploits as graphically and frighteningly described in this week’s portion (and, sadly, in many other places in the Torah).

The themes of settlement and occupation of the land and military campaigns are also a feature of the news this week as the uneven battle between the modern inhabitants of those lands, Israel and Hamas, continues. One of the most disturbing aspects of the latest conflict is not so much the equally uneven way in which it is reported, but rather the reaction of those who are close to the border between the two warring factions, watching the rockets fly and the targeted missiles fall in response to them. It seems that on the rooftops of Gaza and the hilltops of Sderot and other places in southern Israel, Palestinians and Israelis are regarding the exchange of weaponry as some kind of sport. Groups of Israelis are clapping and cheering as deadly explosions are heard in Gaza, or as Israel’s superior military technology destroys yet another Hamas missile, while Palestinians openly rejoice at the news of a successful missile strike. This celebration of military activity and the determination to wipe out one’s enemies that resides in statements issuing not only from Hamas (for whom the destruction of Israel is an openly stated military and political objective) but with increasing frequency from ordinary Israeli citizens and even hinted at by some of its politicians, suggests that in the ancient land that produced the Torah, many of the attitudes of its authors and their contemporaries are reappearing in a world that desperately needs more enlightenment, vision and hope.

Perhaps the only saving grace in this week’s bleak choice of themes comes in the traditional haftarah. Emerging in a time that was already many centuries distant from the conquest alluded to in the portion Mattot, the prophet Jeremiah was initially a reluctant spokesman for Israel’s God. He took his place on the stage of Israelite history at a critical moment. The threat of Babylon from the north had increased and the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, the symbol of God’s promise to protect the people, occurred during Jeremiah’s time (indeed he warned of it and anticipated it). Jeremiah struggled in vain to promote the divine message of seeking peaceful reconciliation rather than engaging in bloody and futile conflict. How the Middle East – and our world – would benefit from a modern-day Jeremiah to remind us of that message.

Rabbi Pete Tobias
Ordained Leo Baeck College 1990

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.