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Parashat Matot-Masei 5779

August 2, 2019

A D’var Torah for Parashat Matot-Masei
By Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD

This week we have a double parashah: Matot-Masei. The name of Parashat Matot means staffs (as in big sticks). A staff is a sign of authority, and this parashah is full of reflections on tribal and patriarchal authority. As it moves through its various narratives, the parashah demonstrates how small acts of violence can lead to larger ones.

The parashah opens with an explanation of the practice of nedarim or vows. This was an important Israelite practice that was open to laypeople, not only clergy. The making and keeping of a vow—such as a vow to become a nazirite and not cut your hair, or Hannah’s vow to give Samuel to the Temple—was a kind of offering practice.  It was a way of showing devotion to God and often of showing gratitude for some personal abundance or miraculous intervention one had received.

However, this vowing practice was not equally open to everyone. Women living in their father’s house, or married woman, needed tacit approval from their fathers or husbands to make a vow. If their male relative objected, the vow was annulled. “If a woman makes a vow to YHWH or takes an oath imposing an obligation on herself while still in her father’s household as a young woman, and her father learns of her vow or her self-imposed obligation and offers no objection, all of her vows shall stand. But if her father restrains her on the day he finds out, none of her vows or self-imposed obligations shall stand, and YHWH will forgive her, since her father restrained her.” (Numbers 30:4-6) A husband could also annul vows, and he could, on his wedding day, annul a vow that had been approved by the woman’s father long before.

The law splits the authority between the human patriarch and the divine patriarch. The woman can make the vow to God, and she can keep it, provided her father or husband does not object. He is also not allowed to annul her vow later on, if he becomes angry with her or with the consequences of her vow. He must annul it in the day that he hears it, or forever hold his peace. There are some checks on his power to abrogate her vow.

I can imagine some benign patriarch somewhere arguing that this is for the woman’s protection: this way, he can protect her from any negative consequences of a foolish vow. Or maybe the practice is for his benefit after all. What if she vows to stop making breakfast, or go on a thirty-day pilgrimage, or stop being a wife and mother at all? One can see how restrictions on the power to make vows are a part of a wider system of laws that keep women in a particular subordinate role in society.

The position of women in Israelite society had many facets—for example, we know about the annual women’s dancing ritual in Shiloh that is probably the same as the love festival of Tu b’Av that took place this month, and about a variety of prophetesses and at least one female judge. We know the story of how the daughters of Tzelofhad inherited their father’s portion of the land. So this is a complex picture. And, there is clearly oppression that women as a group face, and this law is one aspect of that reality.

The very next story in the parashah we come to is a battle against the Midianites. This battle is vengeance for the events at Ba’al Peor, when the Midianites invited the Israelites to worship the god of Ba’al Peor. God wants vengeance on the Midianites, and so the Israelite warriors head into battle taking their priests and sacred things with them. The Israelites kill the king of Midian and they kill Balaam the prophet. They take the women and children captive. Moses then demands they kill any women who have been sexually active, because it was women who seduced the Israelite men at Ba’al Peor. They then proceed to do away with sexually active women and all the boys. The girl children and young women who are not sexually active, they take as slaves.

And let us be honest—this is not mercy, this is sex trafficking. The women are listed later as part of a list of spoils of war that includes sheep, cattle and donkeys. We might have the hope that, as the Torah ordains in Deuteronomy (Deut. 21:10-14), these enslaved women will be taken as wives rather than abused, but even if that is the case, they will still have to marry the men who killed their families.

When Jews get to this parashah, we understandably tend to avoid this material. Yet there is a problem with always avoiding the most painful parts of your own story, which is that you begin to feel you are entitled to avoid them. There is too much we are avoiding, including the meltdown of our planet, the plight of refugees and victims of war and catastrophe, the perils of sex trafficking which is still rampant in our world and continues to be characterized by the most cruel and dehumanizing practices, and lots more. It is our human instinct to avoid painful things, but we need to talk about them. This parashah opens doorways to address things that feel unspeakable.

This parashah also teaches us something important, which is that small acts of violence, like annulling your wife’s vow because you find it inconvenient, are connected to much larger acts of violence, like enslaving women you’ve captured during war. Whether our ancestors thousands of years ago can be held to our own moral standards is a complex problem that we may not be able to solve. But we can observe how a relatively non-violent law at the beginning of our parashah, and the extreme violence that occurs right after it, are related. In rabbinic tradition we call that smikhut parshiyot—two passages next to one another tend to be connected. And these passages are connected, because once you dehumanize women, there is not necessarily a stopping point. Once you dehumanize people of color or refugees or queer people or disabled people or poor people or Jews or Muslims or children or anyone else, there is not necessarily a stopping point. Things we think are not great but not that bad can lead to things that are really bad. This doesn’t mean we can’t judge events relative to one another, but it does mean we have to act against oppression when we see it. As we were all taught in school: an object in motion remains in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. Let’s not let oppression remain in motion.

I hope some of us will pray this week for the Midianites and the Israelites, and offer a gentle hope that all of the people who may have lived this story find healing from their wounds or from their violence or both. May we extend our prayer to reach their descendants, and all who have lived or are living a story like this. May we include in that prayer the Israelite women and others through the ages who didn’t get to make the vows to God that they wanted. May their intentions for the good be fulfilled in us. Shabbat shalom.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at AJR. She is the author of several books, including The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons—as well as the forthcoming Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah.