Saturday, July 26, 2008

Matot (Mitzvot)

This issue is dedicated in loving memory of Hendry March Champion (Chaim ben Ibrahim [Avraham] and Ruth; died 17 Tammuz 5756), by his mother Ruth Sager and by Michael Sager.

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at July 2006.

Three Brief Comments

This parashah includes three mitzvot or imperatives, each one of which we shall discuss briefly:

The opening section (Num 30:2-17) from which this parashah derives its title, Matot, states the obligation of a person to honor any vow or oath he has made, but continues with the qualification that a father or husband has the prerogative of cancelling the vow of a woman (daughter/wife) who is under his aegis (we discussed oaths in general, and their nullification, a while ago, in HY IX: Naso). This rule, to which most of the chapter is devoted, seems alien to modern, egalitarian thinking about the sexes. What is behind this? First, it is rooted in a patriarchal system, in which there was a natural assumption that men had considerable dominion over their womenfolk. Nevertheless, the halakhah in fact restricts its applicability to an oath which in some way impinges upon the husband/father’s interests: for example, given that he is obligated to feed his wife/daughter, should she make an oath restricting her diet in some way or another—not eating meat, or not eating food from a particular source—this may require that he go to considerable trouble and expense to find things that she can eat; hence he has the right to cancel it. (Think of the conflicts in homes where a teenage child decides to become, e.g., vegetarian / kosher / organic / eat whole grain only) Secondly, the fact that the man's option to veto the oath is restricted to “the day on which he hears it” seems significant. I envision his nullifying the oath as a spontaneous reaction to the oath. If he mulls it over for several days, this is no longer the result of direct, immediate feeling, and is more likely to be the result of his reflecting on it, maybe even brooding about it, possibly turning it into an issue of control or authority over his wife/daughter.

A second mitzvah appearing in this parashah is hag’alat kelim—the rules of scouring kitchen utensils which have become unkosher. These are inferred from a few verses (31:22-23) in the lengthy section about the war with the Midianites, the detailed enumeration of the booty taken and its distribution between the combatants and the rest of the people, and the percentages (or per-mils) given to the Sanctuary. Almost in passing, mention is made of the need to purify metal vessels: ”whatever passes through fire, you shall pass through fire; whatever passes through water, you shall pass through water.” This serves as the basis for an entire major topic in the laws of kashrut: kashering dishes and the manner in which forbidden foodstuff is absorbed by dishes. This is, inter alia, the origin of the famous rule, which non-observant Jews find so perplexing, of two sets of dishes—that not only food, but the very dishes they are served on, can be kosher or unkosher, because the vessels themselves can absorb the “taste” of the things cooked therein, driven into them by fire or boiling water, which subsequently is released when again heated. The possibility of kashering only exists for metal utensils, such as those mentioned in the verse (or glass, with somewhat different rules, which had not yet been invented in Torah times); the rule for earthenware, which is extended even to glazed ceramic dishes, is “an earthen vessel in which it [holy stuff] is cooked shall be broken” (Lev 6:21) is based on their being indefinitely porous and absorbent. (But some Hasidic homilists read this as a metaphor for the process of spiritual purification through a person “breaking” his stubborn and willful heart.)

The third item I’d like to note is more an ethical principle or imperative than an actual mitzvah. Our parashah concludes with the story of the tribes of Gad and Reuben (and half of Manasseh, who suddenly appear in v. 33) who had large flocks of sheep and wanted to settle in Sisjordan—i.e., the far side of the Jordan—which, as high steppe country, was particularly suitable for grazing sheep. What is interesting is Moses’ reaction, and the underlying moral assumptions in his words: “shall your brethren go to war and you remain here?!” (Num 32:6). Essentially, this was a violation of an intuitively felt sense of equity, of the idea of collective responsibility: that one group cannot opt out of a strenuous or dangerous effort at the expense of another. All must participate equally in conquering the land; they were allowed to leave their wives, children and livestock behind, but could return to the piece of land they desired only when and if they had done their share of the collective effort.

Perhaps, too, Moses felt the need to transform a motley collection of clans and tribes and clans into one people. Between the lines of the Former Prophets—i.e., the books describing the history from Joshua down to the end of the divided monarchies of Israel and Judah—one senses the strong tension between the attempt to centralize and unify the nation, vs. the “centrifugal” force of the various tribes, each one pulling in its own direction. (See especially the Book of Judges: the caustic remarks davka about Reuben in the Song of Deborah [Jdg 5] or the war of all against the Benjaminites following the incident of the “concubine in Gibeah” in Jdg 19-21; and cf. Joshua 22 for the follow up on the two-and-a-half tribes). And the contemporary reader, observing both an Israel and a Diaspora divided among numerous ethnic and ideological groups, may well feel that we are still a people of at least twelve tribes, struggling to find some strong unifying factor.

There is another element in Moses’ reaction. In his lengthy response to their request, which is almost a harangue, he invokes recent memories of the incident of the spies, who brought back a negative report about Eretz Yisrael. He saw these tribes, too, as expressing a kind of defeatism, an attempt to avoid battle for which the needs of the flock served as merely a screen—and feared that their action would spread among others, undermining the nation’s and courage and confidence and belief in their own cause.

We also find here, in passing, the basis of misphetei tennaim, the halakhic procedure required to set up a binding condition or rider to an agreement: “If you do A, then B will follow; but if you don’t do A, then you won’t have B.” (For those interested in the intricacies of lamdanut, this rule is mentioned in two very different contexts in Rambam, that of ordinary business contracts and that of marriage and divorce, prompting Rabad to make an interesting observation in his gloss; see Zekhiyah u-Matanah 3.7-8 and Ishut 6.1-2)

A Correction and Some Remarks re Haftarah Pinhas

Last week, I erroneously referred to that week’s haftarah as the “a paradigmatic confrontation in Israel’s history”; I was thinking of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18), which is in fact read for Ki Tisa, due to the association with the story of the Golden Calf). The haftarah for Pinhas—which, as I noted, is read only infrequently (the previous time was in 2000; the next will be in 2014; it is only read when Matot and Masei are separate, making Pinhas fall prior to the 17th of Tammuz; otherwise one reads the first of the three “haftarot of rebuke” connected with the Destruction of the Temple), is the almost immediate sequel to that story, beginning with 1 Kings 18:46, and relating two stories: Elijah’s journey into the desert, all the way to Mount Horeb, where he experiences a personal epiphany; and his anointing of Elisha as his successor (as well as coronating two new kings, Hazael over Aram and Yehu over Israel).

It occurred to me that there is a double reason for the choice of this passage as haftarah. One, that Elijah is seen as a doppelganger of Pinhas, both being noted for their quality of zeal: “I have been very zealous for the Lord of Hosts” (I Kgs 19:10). Secondly, Elijah here appoints Elisha as his successor, just as Moses does to Joshua in our parashah, as discussed. The Moses “topos” is reinforced by Elijah’s going for forty days without food or drink, and his going specifically to the site of Moses’ revelation: Mount Horeb (Sinai). (By the way, this is doubtless the source of the English idiom, “to pass on the mantle”; here, Elijah literally covers Elisha with his cloak or mantle; when he ascends heavenwards, in 2 Kings 2:14-15, the garment becomes his permanently.) For further discussion of this interesting chapter, see my essay, “Elijah in the Desert: The Still Small Voice,” at HY II: Pinhas = Pinhas (Haftarah).


Chapter One

We have once more come full circle, and this Shabbat begin the third cycle of reading Pirkei Avot.

4. Yossi ben Yoezer of Tzereda and Yossi ben Yohanan of Jerusalem received from them. Yossi ben Yoezer of Tzereda said: may your home be a meeting place of the sages; and you should sit at the dust of their feet, and drink their words with thirst.

This mishnah presents a striking contrast to 1.1, which speaks of the importance of exercising care and deliberation in judgment, raising many students, and making fences around Torah. Clearly, the former is part of the internal discourse among the sages, concerning their responsibility, as teachers and leaders, towards the people as a whole; here, and in the next mishnah, we have advice directed to the ordinary person, the ordinary “householder.” He cannot engage in Torah study on the same level as the sages, but he can provide them with the material setting for them to engage in teaching, and he may himself listen to them (“sit in the dust at their feet”) and absorb what he can, in a passive, receptive mode (“drink their words with thirst”).

It is also interesting to contrast this mishnah to 2.15, warning a person against a ferocious side to the sages: “Warm yourself before the fire of the sages, but take care of their sparks, that you not be burned; for their biting is like that of a fox, and their sting is like that of a scorpion, and their hissing is like that of a snake, and all their words are like coals of fire.”

5. Yossi ben Yohanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be wide open, and let the poor be as members of your household, and do not engage overly much in conversation with women. This is said even regarding his own wife; all the more so regarding his neighbor’s wife. From this, the Sages said: Whoever overindulges in conversation with women causes himself harm, neglects words of Torah, and his end is to inherit Gehinnom.

The first half of this mishnah is again addressed to the householder: he should engage in hospitality to the stranger (the famed Abrahamic virtue!), and in particular make the poor, who are likely to feel downtrodden and miserable and lack the comforts of a home of their own, take succor in being in a comfortable home. (The phrase ben-bayit, literally, “son of the house,” is used of a person who is a regular guest in a particular home; it is a uniquely Hebraic expression, expressing this ethic.) Taken together, these two mishnayot provide a warm, positive image of the Jewish home, as the center from which the Jewish householder is able to engage in acts of kindness and helpfulness to others, as well as contribute towards Torah discourse by providing a venue for such. (The assumption seems to be that the sage himself is either itinerant, without a home of his own, or else his home is not large enough or “presentable” enough to serve as a dignified center. In our own south Jerusalem community, there are a number of wealthy people with large homes who regularly open their homes to serve as a venue for Torah lectures.)

But then comes the final, clause in this mishnah: to avoid excessive conversation with women. I cannot help but contrast this with a remark I once read by Salman Rushdie: he said that, in India, the conversation among women is infinitely more interesting than that of men: the men are always talking about business, the stock market, real estate; whereas women in India, perhaps like their sisters in the West, are in the midst of a period of dynamic change, breaking through into involvement in the great world, and are filled with interesting observations about society, culture, human behavior, etc.

Were the rabbis simply afflicted with misogyny? Or does this reflect an exaggerated fear of female sexuality—the idea that every encounter between the sexes inevitably carries sexual overtones. Needless to say, this is no entire untrue; the question is whether strict social separation is not “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” We moderns prefer to deal with the problem by internal controls; some Haredim would doubtless suggest that we are less than successful. Or is it rather a matter of women not studying Torah, and therefore not having anything of value to say? Again, in our generation there are increasing numbers of women who too study and are even learned in Torah, suggesting that they have much to contribute to the overall discourse—and it is good that this is so.

But I must conclude by defending our Sages, and not leaving them simply as woman-hating primitives. First, that in their time the role and situation of the two sexes was so different that excessive mingling did present certain dangers. Second, even in our own day, notwithstanding “unisex” and egalitarianism and liberation and the like, there is such a thing as conversation among each gender by themselves, which is certainly of a very different tenor, and in many ways far more comfortable and easy, than that of mixed groups—which is, of course, not to exclude the validity of the latter. And these matters deserve much more extensive discussion than I can give them now.


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