Wednesday, 15 Jul 2015

Written by Naomi Goldman

We are in the middle of the three weeks between 17 Tammuz and Tisha B’Av – the period, traditionally one of  mourning, which marks the time between the breach of the walls of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. The Jewish world as it was understood at the time was destroyed and the rabbis said it happened because of our mistakes, because we were not kind enough to each other. It is a time when we can see trouble coming unless we do something serious about it – destruction is at hand and the world as we know it will not survive unless we change our ways.

It is not however a period of Jewish time that troubles many progressive Jews.  It is summertime, holidays are beginning, schools are about to close for the long summer break.  The British summer feels like a long way away from the burning heat of the Middle East and the sense of desolation that characterises the Jewish cycle at this time of year.

I want to suggest however that we should be reclaiming this period of time, partly to re-affirm the Jewish calendar as truly holistic, embracing the dark as well as the light, but more importantly because there is a connection between the Three Weeks and the run-up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and that acknowledging the first can make more sense of the latter.

If we think of the Jewish year as one of healing and spiritual growth, then we need to acknowledge what is broken in the world, and sometimes in our own lives, before we can move on to putting it right.  We need to face the dark before we can begin to move towards repairing our relationships, the world, and ourselves. 

At the time, the destruction of the Temple represented the worst thing imaginable.  You pray for something not to happen and then it happens.  There are plenty of terrible things going on right now which should engender the same sense of outrage and despair, from refugees drowning in the Mediterranean to terrorist atrocities.  I think if we want to reclaim the Three Weeks it needs to be with this sense of acknowledging the sense of our vulnerability and of our certainties being shaken.  But then on the afternoon of Tisha B’Av we start the seven weeks of consolation which take us through Elul to Rosh Hashanah, during which we take steps to try and put ourselves and the world back into alignment.

This week’s parashah gives us a hint of the connection between this time of year and the High Holy Days.  Parashat Mattot begins with Moses passing on God’s instructions about making religious vows.  In the ancient world, this usually involved promising to dedicate something to God in return for a request fulfilled (neder), a binding promise invoking God (shevua), or denying something to oneself for a period of time (isar). However a father can annul the vows of his young daughter and a husband cancel his wife’s vows, provided they do so on the day they hear it, and don’t wait, after which the vow stands.  

The language is strikingly similar to the Kol Nidrei prayer – when we ask to be absolved from “all vows and obligations to God” it is these vows we recite and these we mean.  It is at this point in the year, in the bright summer sunshine, more than two months before we turn to God and ask for forgiveness, that we can begin to contemplate the vows we make, the ones we keep, and the ones that we don’t.

At first reading, this text looks like a simple delineation of male authority over female subordinates. Nobody can cancel a man’s vows – but a father or husband can override his daughter or wife’s.  That’s a perfectly reasonable literal reading, although it is worth noting that women must have been in the habit of making their own religious vows and that the ability to override them is limited to the day the vow is made.  But there are other readings.

Rabbi Alan Lew z”l cited the mediaeval Spanish Kabbalist Ibn Gikitilla, who saw the text as a remez, a level of meaning that is hidden, but implied or hinted at by something else.   Gikitilla saw the woman making her vow as a representation of the neshamah, that spark of life that sits in the human soul.  The husband or father is the yetzer hara, the evil impulse that gets in the way of the soul doing what it really needs to do.  In the rabbinic imagining, the yetzer hara can represents the materiality of the world; not just actual evil, but the often necessary impulse to earn a living, have sex, eat well, engage with the secular world.

Seen in this light, the message of Parashat Mattot is that our deepest selves have the power to articulate and act on our purest intentions; but sometimes that part of ourselves that is locked into the material world and everyday unconscious living gets in the way and stops us from doing our soul-work. Nobody else is stopping us. We are talking about a tension between different parts of ourselves.

What happens to the woman who is forced to annul her vow? What happens to our soul, our inner self, when material impulses distract us from what we are supposed to be doing? The text repeats the same concluding phrase just to make it clear: “and God will forgive her.” (va’adonai yislach lah)   We will be forgiven; which might also make it possible for us to forgive ourselves when we don’t quite match up to our point of primal goodness, our nikudah tovah,  that Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught was within each person.  And that kind of  language takes us straight into Selichot and the awareness that if we truly take stock of ourselves and our failings we will indeed be forgiven. 

We always read Mattot at around this time of year and I think it is always there to remind us that if we want to prepare ourselves for the season of Teshuvah then our soul needs some strengthening and nurturing first, so that we can at least make a stab at doing what it is we truly need to do in our lives and in the world. We can use these Three Weeks to pay more attention to what is really going on within our deepest selves and then,  in the cycle of renewal that is the Jewish year, we turn towards repairing the broken-ness, in the knowledge that we will be forgiven.

Student rabbi Naomi Goldman

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