Strength and Numbers

Matot opens with a discussion about vows and oaths made by women and men.

 World's smallest Torah (photo credit: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)
World's smallest Torah

Since the end of Passover this year there has been a dissonance between the Torah readings in Israel and the Torah readings in the Diaspora. This divergence occurred because the eighth day of Passover, celebrated only in the Diaspora, fell on Shabbat and so the Torah reading that morning was not the weekly Torah reading, but rather the special reading for the eighth day of Pessah. In Israel, and in some Diaspora communities (Reconstructionist and Reform), that do not observe an extra day of hag, portion Ahrei Mot, that week’s Torah reading, was read that Shabbat morning launching the period of disparate different readings. With the double reading of Matot and Masei in the Diaspora this week, those communities, if you will, catch up to Israel, which reads only Masei, having read Matot last week, and so the communities will again be in sync.

Matot opens with a discussion about vows and oaths made by women and men. Commenting, Sara Barrack, writes:

“Although women made vows with the intent to keep them, our religious texts told women of the time that their efforts weren’t good enough and their vows weren’t respected in the same way as men’s vows. In Matot, only when a woman is widowed or divorced, is she finally allowed to make a vow and keep it without someone else’s approval… It’s worth noting that the values in Matot do show that women were allowed to make vows and, with family support, keep them. The society at the time recognized a certain power in women’s vows, which, if their family didn’t object, had as much weight as men’s vows. I appreciate that there was an opportunity for equality. But Matot/Masei is far from satisfactory, and its rules surrounding vows prevented women from fully flourishing as autonomous Jewish individuals with important contributions to make to society.”

The portion then continues with a description of a bloody holy war of vengeance against the Midianites including the killing of all of their males as well as their kings (Numbers 31:7-8). Further, we read:

“And the children of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones; and all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods, they took for a prey. And all their cities in the places wherein they dwelt, and all their encampments, they burnt with fire. And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of man and of beast. And they brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil, unto Moses, and unto Eleazar the priest, and unto the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the camp, unto the plains of Moab, which are by the Jordan at Jericho. And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who came from the service of the war. And Moses said unto them: ‘Have ye saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to revolt so as to break faith with the Lord in the matter of Peor, and so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord. Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” (Numbers 31:9-18).

RABBI JOSEPH HERTZ in his famous Hebrew-English Bible with Torah commentaries, known as the Hertz Chumash, shows his discomfort with this passage when he writes, “The war against the Midianites presents particular difficulties. We are no longer acquainted with the circumstances that justified the ruthlessness with which it was waged, and therefore we cannot satisfactorily meet the various objections that have been raised in that connection.”

Both of these passages from the beginning of this week’s Torah readings are difficult to read and raise the issue of how do we address disquieting episodes in the Torah. One approach is to look at events in the Torah from two different perspectives. The first being proscriptive while the second, descriptive. That is to say, we can understand certain accounts within the text as telling us what to do, or we can interpret them more as a mirror showing how individuals and or communities sometimes act – and in some cases are presented not to emulate, but serve more as a cautionary tale. In this week’s cases of women’s vows and the vengeful war against the Midianites we can read them not as telling us what to do, but guiding us in different directions.

A major focus of our second Torah portion, Masei, consists of a review of the 42 locations Moses and the children of Israel stopped at during the 40 years wandering from the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea) to the Jordan River. While we don’t know where all of them are, a good case can be made for the location of some of them (Numbers 33:1-50). Archaeologist Uzi Avner explains, “Ramses is under consensus – Tel adh-Dhaba’, in Wadi Tumeilat, i.e. Eretz Goshen. Sukkot – only approximately do we know where it is at the northern end of the Bitter Lake. As to the other stations according to the Deuteronomistic ideology and the editorial work of the Bible, the text deliberately refrains from giving any hint as to the exact location of them, even Mount Sinai, Aaron’s tomb etc. On two other sites, there is a near consensus – Qadesh Barnea’ in the oasis of ‘Ein Qudeirat, and Ba’al Tzafron, on the barrier of Sabhat Bardawil.”

Archaeologist Liora Kolska Horwitz adds, “While we don’t know the exact location of Etzion Gever it is somewhere along the northern shore of the Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat.”

Present-day locations with names found in chapter 33 of the Book of Numbers such as Evrona and Yotvata just north of Eilat/Aqaba were given those names in 1950 by the Israeli Names Committee with no real connection to any solid evidence that was their actual biblical location.

Related to the 42 stations from the Exodus story, there is one tradition of writing a Torah scroll with 42 lines in a column as a reminder of those 42 stations. In that way we understand each line of the Torah as part of a larger interconnected timeless story. As we finish Parashat Masei we also finish the Book of Numbers. When we finish a book of the Torah it is traditional to say, “Hazak Hazak V’nithazek/Let us be strong, let us be strong and let us strengthen each other as well.” Why those words?

One explanation is that in a scroll of a Sefer Torah there are five blank lines between each book. That empty space can be seen as a metaphor for those moments in our own lives when we experience change, with nothing to hold onto. We strengthen ourselves by what we have experienced before to make that crossing – remember we are also known as Ivrim/Hebrews (Genesis 14:13), “the ones who crossover.” With that in mind we can understand this statement as follows: “Hazak/let us be strong,” as we face this uncertain moment, “Hazak/let us be strong,” by gathering what has led us to this juncture, just as we take what we have learned from one book of the Torah to the next book of the Torah, “V’nithazek, and let us strengthen each other as well,” reminding ourselves that family, friends, and community can make the process easier.

The writer, a rabbi, teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and at Bennington College.