Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Matot-Masei (Torah)

“Together, all the Tribes of Israel”

This week’s Torah reading, in which the last two portions of the Book of Bamidbar are combined, is the longest reading in the entire liturgical cycle (only once in three or four years, and only in the Land of Israel, are these two portions in fact read separately). The title of the former, Matot, is taken from its opening words, but much of what is related in both these sections indeed relates to the ”tribe-ness “ of the people. The people of Israel, during its early stages, certainly during First Temple times, was in fact a confederation of tribes. It could be described, in a certain sense, as similar to the original idea of the United States: i.e., a republic of semi-independent smaller units, with a constant interplay and delicate balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces. Many of the conflicts described in the historical books of the Bible—Judges, Samuel and Kings—focus upon the differences among the tribes, and particularly the ongoing conflict between Judah and Joseph (i.e., Ephraim), as the two strongest tribes, vying for leadership.

On the other hand, notwithstanding the inherent tensions in this setup, the Torah clearly sees in this the ideal model for the Jewish people (see the image of the twelve tribes organized around the Tent of Meeting in Chs. 1-3 of Numbers, and Ezekiel’s schematic vision of the reconstructed Jewish state in 47:13 - 48:35), and is part and parcel of the vision of the Messianic redemption: in addition to the rebuilding of the Temple and the reinstitution of the Davidic monarchy, this vision includes the ingathering of the exiles, of which the return of the “ten lost tribes” is an integral part. (This seems to have been the intention of the authors of the Musaf prayer for Rosh Hashanah in including Jeremiah 31:19 among the verses of Zikhronot: “Is not Ephraim my beloved son, my delight-child, for whenever I speak of him… my innards yearn for him; I shall surely have mercy on him, says the Lord.”

These two Torah sections essentially continue the motif already mentioned in Pinhas, of practical, down-to-earth preparations of the people for entering into the Land. In fact, three of the subjects found here may be described as threads alluded to briefly in Pinhas, and developed here more fully: the war against the Midianites (25:16-18; here in Ch. 31); the daughters of Zelophehad (27:1-11; 36); and the inheritance and division of the Land (26:52-56; 33:50-56; 34:16-29).

A brief rundown of the main subjects treated in its seven chapters:

Ch. 30: the status of women vis a vis oaths and vows: the father’s/husband’s right to nullify their vows “on the day that they hear.”

Ch. 31: the War with Midian: an unusually long and detailed chapter, including the commandment to kill all the males and the mature women; technical details of the purgation of vessels taken as booty (which serves as a model for the laws of kashering kitchen utensils); and the distribution of spoils to the soldiers and peoples, and the giving by them to the Temple of two pro mil and two percent, respectively.

Ch. 32: The incident of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who preferred to stay in Transjordan, where there was better grazing country for their flocks. This chapter typifies the idea of “tribal-ness” mentioned above, on which more below.

Ch. 33: A summary of the travels of the Israelites and a list of all the stations on the way, with which the second portion, Mas’ei, begins, with a few sporadic comments. It concludes with the commandment to destroy the high places and altars of the pagans upon entering the Land.

Ch. 34: Instructions pertaining to the settlement of the Land: the detailed boundaries of Eretz Yisrael; the division of the land, and the appointment of delegates from each tribe to represent them and to oversee the subdivision among the clans. Again, the tribal motif, together with the subdivision into clans, and into households or extended families, is central.

Ch. 35: The assignment of cities to the Levites, with their surrounding lots—a total of 48, four from each tribe. Among these, several were set aside as cities of refuge, for cases of unintentional manslaughter.

Ch. 36: The daughters of Zelophehad: Part II. After the right of the daughters’ inheritance is established, at least in those cases where there are no sons, their tribesmen complain that they fear loss of their tribal inheritance should the women marry outside of the tribe. These conflicting interests are resolved by imposing a special rule that in such a case the daughters may only marry within the tribe. Again, the issue of tribal rights vs. the application of the principle of equity to the sexes.

More on Bilam

Several readers commented that I was too easy on Bil’am, and should have taken more seriously the view of Hazal (Sanhedrin 106a and elsewhere) that, following the failure of his mission on behalf of Balak, he sought other ways to harm Israel: namely, by tempting them into orgies with the Midianite girls.

And indeed, upon closer reading, I realized that this midrashic motif is not made up out of whole cloth, but in fact has a solid basis in this parshah, which explicitly states that the Midianite women were “[a stumbling block] to the Israelites in the matter of Bil’am, to commit a trespass against the Lord” (31:16). Elsewhere in the Bible, as well, Bil’am is mentioned negatively; e.g., in Deut 23:5-6, where, in the context of the ban on intermarriage with Moab and Ammon, it says “And how he hired against you Bil’am son of Be’or to curse you… and the Lord your God did not wish to hearken to Bil’am, for [He] loved you”; and elsewhere.

How then do I read the Bil’am story? I still believe that he underwent a certain conversion, or transformation in his thinking. I see Bil’am at the beginning of the story as a type similar to Don Juan, the Yaqui (Mexican Indian) magician described in the series of books by anthropologist Carlos Casteneda, who had a seemingly authentic ability to manipulate and tap the powers immanent in the universe. The Torah, it would seem, accepts the existence of such powers (contrary to the modern, rationalistic milieu, that insists that all such phenomena can be explained away), but insists upon their underlying ground in the oneness of God, who reigns supreme over them. In any event, during the course of the events described, Bil’am was overpowered by God’s will, and came to see that he, as a human being, was not sovereign over these powers, and was not free to manipulate them—and God—as he willed. He was humbled by God.

But he still refused to accept the idea that Israel was the beloved of God, and sought other ways to harm them. He reasoned to himself, as the midrash says, that ”Their God hates licentiousness.” (This is in itself an interesting comment: i.e., the God of Israel is a puritan vis-a-vis sexual matters, evidently unlike the pagan gods, who are “swingers “—as illustrated by the myths about Baal and Ishtar and Anat and the rest. The conception is an interesting one, deserving of further analysis). Hence, it was possible to trip up Israel by tempting them into sexual sins, taking advantage of the objective moral weakness of at least part of the people, in the hope that this would cause God to turn against them; and so it was, until Pinhas came along.

(Speaking about Pinhas: to avoid any possible misunderstanding, in light of today’s spiritual climate: the description of Pinhas as zealot was by way of thumb-nail phenomenology, to try to understand what zealotry is all about. It goes without saying that I am extremely critical of and disturbed by the increasing prevalence of various kinds of zealotry and fanaticism in today’s world. [Just the other day the paper reported that three so-called hozrim beteshuvah (“penitents”) were indicted for torching the Conservative synagogue in Ramot a few weeks ago.] The attitude too often is: if you’re not a fanatic, filled with hate or at least a sense of smug superiority toward those who are less strict than yourself, you must be “less religious” than others, rather than the person who radiates love and kindness being the ideal. If that is the lesson people learn from the Torah’s permission for zealotry in certain cases, woe to us.)

To return to Chapter 31: there is much here that is very difficult to accept from a modernist view. Following the conclusion of the war with Midianites, and the slaughter of every male, Moses was cross with the people that they had not killed all the mature women, those “who had known men.” Since it was the sexual temptation of these women that had been the stumbling block to the Israelites in the first place, he saw the very fact of leaving them alive as a kind of moral threat to the people. Thus he ordered woman who had known a man (or, according to the midrash quoted by Rashi, all those who were old enough for intercourse) to be killed. In brief, the womenfolk of Midian were stigmatized as “temptresses.” Today, there are many who would describe this is a classical male-oriented approach—to see women, especially those who for one reason or another are thought of as loose, or presenting themselves immodestly, as “tempting” men. In brief, this seems to reflect the idea of seeing woman per se as the embodiment of sexuality, rather than seeing sexuality, and the possibility of uncontrolled, unruly sexuality, as essentially originating within the person, man or woman, and encouraging people to learn to exercise control from within.

I believe that this is the underlying issue in the debate between the late 20th century approach to sexuality (sexual harassment laws; the Oberlin dating code; etc.) and the traditional halakhic approach. The modern code is based entirely upon the assumotion of the efficacy of “inner control”; the operating premise of the halakhah, by contrast, is that “inner control” must be combined with a multitude of objective, action-oriented rules, distancing man and woman from unwanted and illicit temptation. The question confronting the traditional Jew is the following: Is it in fact clear that the modern view is objectively, psychologically sound? Can human sexuality be tamed from within, simply by internalizing values of “respect” and not seeing others as “objects”? (Camille Paglia has some scathing and sarcastic things to say about this whole way of thinking.) Needless to say, it is a long distance from that to killing all the Midianite women. In any event, the whole issue is surely deserving of objective, non-prejudiced review.

“And they had many cattle”

Chapter 32 tells the story of the tribes of Reuben and Gad (later joined by the half-tribe of Manasseh), who did not wish to settle in Eretz Yisrael proper, but asked Moses for permission to settle in the plateau land of Bashan and Gilead, newly conquered from the two Amorite kings Og and Sihon. They barely manage to say one sentence, and are meant by a vehement harangue on the part of Moses. This begins with the comment that they are trying to avoid the dangers of warfare: “Shall your brethren go to war and you stay here?!” (v. 6; a verse that could well be the slogan for one of the most painful splits in contemporary Israeli society, davka in the name of the Torah). He continues to say that they are discouraging, disheartening their brethren, much like the spies did in their day, causing the entire people to wander in the desert for forty years. Moses concludes by calling them “a culture [or multitude?] of sinning people” (v. 14), and expresses his fear that they will “spoil” the entire people. No, no, they respond, we’ll build pens for our livestock and homes for our women and children, and we’ll come with you to fight until the task is completed. At this point Moses softens somewhat, but only enough to lay down the rules and conditions under which he will agree to this deal (the detailed way in which these conditions are stipulated is used by Hazal to infer the rules governing the making of conditional contracts generally).

What was it about this proposal that prompted such a ferocious outburst on Moses’ part? The Reubenites and Gadites seem to have been willing enough to cooperate with them. Why the rhetoric of calling them “sinful people,” the protracted recounting of the story of the Spies, and all the rest? No doubt, the period of the rebellions was still very much on Moses’ mind, even after 38 years. Having experienced so much trouble with the former slaves, he had hoped that the new generation that had grown up in the desert would be different. As soon as he heard them say “do not take us across the Jordan,” it lit a red light: the same old story all over again. Or, as the midrash points out (Num. Rab. 22:7, 9), they were egocentric, selfish, more interested in their property than in anything else (even, as Rashi shrewdly observes, than their own children, comparing the order of “pens” and “cities” in vv. 16 and 24). Most important, he feared an outbreak of defeatism among the rest of the people. “Why can they stay behind, and pick where they want to live, while we have to go into this land to fight, and after all that have our territory chosen by lot?”

But perhaps there was something else as well. Moses must have been very sensitive to the hints of separatism, for the first signs of unravelling of the solidarity of the people, in the desire of this tribe to look out for themselves before sharing in the responsibilities of the Israelite nation as a whole. (A similar idea appears in the Song of Deborah, where those tribes that sat out the battle when called to join come in for scathing ridicule; see Jdg 5:15-17). The tribal makeup of the people involved a delicate balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces. The wish of the Reubenites and the Gadites to stake out their claim in this remote mountainous region was surely disturbing. Even though contiguous to the Land of Israel, they were not seen as an integral part of the Land, defined then as now as the territory lying between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. As one of the midrashim mentioned earlier says, “They liked their money, and dwelt outside of the land.” They made their decisions on the basis of property, rather on that of other values, such as communal solidarity, identification with the national goal of settling the Land, etc.

An interesting story about the relationship between the Gadites and Reubenites to the rest of the people appears in Joshua 22. Fourteen years later or so, after the reasonably successful conquest of the Land, the menfolk of the two-and-a-half tribes are given leave by Joshua to return to their homes in Transjordan. On their way, at the fords of the Jordan River, they stop to build an enormous altar. The other tribes, upon getting wind of this, see in this an act of rebellion against the Lord God of Israel and His altar in Shiloh, and are all ready to send troops against them and give them what for. But first, a delegation is sent to investigate the matter, which is told, “O no, we’re not intending to leave the worship of the God of Israel. This altar isn’t for offering cultic sacrifices separately, but on the contrary, it’s a sign and a reminder of our belonging to the collectivity of Israel even though we live so far away….” It ‘s interesting that these tribes seemed to have a knack for constantly being misunderstood by the other tribes. One wonders if there isn’t far more here than meets the eye. Who knows? Perhaps the Sages of the midrash still had some sort of hazy, ancient historical memory of a separatist movement of these tribes.

Cities of Refuge

Numbers 35:9-34 makes provision for the setting up of six “cities of refuge” among the Levitic cities, for those who unwittingly commit manslaughter. The essential idea here seems to be: one, recognition of the diminished culpability of one who kills another person by accident; two, the prevention of further bloodshed by family vendettas by setting up sanctuaries from which would-be avengers are barred. This can be viewed as an attempt to neutralize the “Wild West” aspects of a decentralized, rough and ready society. Once again, Michael Kagan shares with us some interesting Torahs:

Why should the manslayer be condemned to take refuge from the avenger in such a city until the death of the High Priest [v. 28]? [R. Obadiah] Sforno gives a great answer. Every action that leads to an unintentional result involves to some degree a measure of negligence: the wood cutter should have checked his axe to make sure that the head was securely in place and that no one was too close. He had no intention of hurting anyone, but if he had been more meticulous, then the tragic accident might have perhaps been averted. To what degree was he negligent? Is it possible to completely control any particular situation? Only God knows to what degree the wood cutter (or you and I) was negligent. This unknown or built-in degree of randomness is reflected in the punishment (mida k’neged mida): since the life span of the Kohen Gadol is also (from our perspective) a random event. Thus, the unknown amount of negligence is punished by an unknown amount of time in the City of Refuge. Only the Perfect Judge will be able to match those two factors and bring justice into the world.


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