Torah from Around the World #228

By Rabbi
Mindy Avra Portnoy, Rabbi Emerita,

Temple Sinai

, Washington, DC

It’s almost
the end of the journey – 40 long years of wandering, one generation with dim
memories of slavery and a miraculous redemption; the other, born in the


the wilderness, ready to get on with it, yet filled with fears for the future.
Moses is still

dreying their kops

(Yiddish for “messing with their
heads”) with all kinds of commandments –seems like 10


take them very
far –



had enough of this
ritual stuff, and are much more interested in how the land will be apportioned,
and in conquering their final enemy, the Midianites.

More often
than not, Parashat Mattot is paired with Mas’ei as a double portion, so that we
tend to avoid the messiness and moral ambiguities of Mattot in sermons and
Divrei Torah. But this year, Mattot stands alone, so we are able to give it its
rightful due.

And I say:
let’s dig into the muck! Because as with all too many experiences in life with
which we are familiar, lessons for living often emerge from the darkness. And
the true darkness of this Torah portion is in those human emotions with which
we are also all too familiar: vengeance, anger, greed. Yet the people who
embody these emotions are the very same people (sans their long-time leader)
who will march into the Promised Land, bearing all those laws and commandments.
Are we, the descendants of those people, really so different? Do we not also
know those feelings of vengeance and anger and greed? What does our tradition
teach us about Mattot that will help us feel close to those cranky, impatient,
still-wandering Israelites, and yet at the same time perhaps learn from their

Long before
modern Reform

Jews sat vexed at Torah study groups,
troubled by the image of a God who would order Moses to take vengeance on the
Midianites (Numbers 31:2), medieval rabbis were also asking similar questions.
Rashi asked: why take vengeance on Midian and not


? The preceding stories teach
us that Balaam, a Midianite, had been hired by the King of Moab to curse the
Israelites. And later we learn about the involvement of Israelites with cult
prostitutes, understood by the Bible as instigated by Midianites. Rashi
answered his own question in this way:




because they
were afraid of


plundering of their land, not because of groundless hatred. But Midian got
involved in a fight they had no real part in. They fought for the sake of
fighting. In other words, all potential enemies are not the same. Some may be
ignorant, others are pointlessly vicious.

That same
part of the world, along with others, remains marked by violence, and we ask
ourselves: can we distinguish enemies from, if not friends, at least people
worth negotiating with? Historically, Rashi may been been all wrong; more
modern scholars suggest that Moabites and Midianities may have in fact
overlapped, but psychologically, Rashi teaches us much about trying to
comprehend those who are different from us. And did he not also hint at a
further truth, that we too must beware of pointless vengeance.

Do we not
think that Moses, in his hot anger, went


far in ordering his
soldiers to slay the male children? Hadn’t it been Moses’ excessive anger that
got him into so much tsuris in the first place, when he struck the rock for
water out of sheer exasperation? How do we balance righteous anger against
self-righteous vengeance? The goal, then as now, was to dwell in the land in
safety and


the sake of a spiritual destiny. Is it possible to
achieve that goal without vengeance getting in the way? And what does this
portion teach those of us who live in the Diaspora, who find it easy to
criticize, without sharing the consequences? After all, those wandering
Israelites were caught literally between a harsh desert and a
not-easily-conquerable Promised Land.

the tribes of Reuben and Gad understood this quandary. On the opposite side of


poised on the brink of crossing, they note that the land


is perfect
for cattle grazing, their particular métier; why risk their necks for unknown
territory yet to be conquered? So they ask Moses if they can stay behind.
Moses, outraged by the thought, reminds them of the history and the promise;
they, nevertheless, remain adamant, striking a deal with Moses to fight on
behalf of the other tribes (see source of Hebrew word “chalutz” in Numbers
32:29,32), and then to return back across the Jordan.

While it
seems a fair deal on first reading, the rabbis were less understanding. In Midrash
BaMidbar Rabbah, we read, “you find that they were rich, possessing large
numbers of cattle, but they loved money and settled outside the




. Consequently, they were the
first of all the tribes to go into exile…What brought it on them? the fact that
they separated themselves from their brethren because of their possessions.”

Were the
rabbis too hard on them? Not if we look carefully at the text, in which the
tribes mention their cattle before their children, and Moses must rhetorically
reprimand them by reversing the order, saying “Build towns for your children,
and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised.”

So the
deeper message of this section is not just that the settlement in the Land is
considered a paramount value in the Biblical text, but also that material greed
can distort other basic values as well. Get your priorities in order, we are being
taught. Value people over property; stay unified with and fight for your
people, before you take care of your personal needs. Moses, an imperfect man
himself, would be the oratorical vehicle for God’s expectations of the

then, reminds us about re-ordering our own priorities, about savoring that
which really matters, to be responsible for our kin. As the poet Ruth Brin
wrote, “neither military necessities nor the uncertainties of desert life
stopped Moses from teaching that children came before sheep, human values
before property…the city we build may have pillars of ivory and gold, pavements
of sapphire, and silken curtains shot with color; but we build in vain unless
we build gates of thanksgiving and windows of praise, gardens of contemplation,
and walls of love to shelter the little ones.” (Ruth F. Brin,



Reconstructionist Press

, 1986, page 81).

Israelites had come a long way, and were now standing on the border of the
Promised Land. Despite the centuries separating us, wherever we live, we still
struggle with many of the same emotions and challenges that beset our
ancestors. Still wandering, still angry, still greedy, still “crazy” after all
these years, we persist in believing that the journey has a meaning, that God
has a purpose for us, and that someday we will all dwell in peace and security.

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