Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Parashat Matot - Passing the Baton


For Feminists who cheered Tzelophechad's Daughters last week - and who are dismayed at the apparent backlash in the opening section of this week's Parasha - there is further good news on the horizon. It was recently reported that Madonna is changing careers: She has decided to become a Rabbi. This is in furtherance of her interest in spreading the message of Kabbalah, which is described as a "Mystical Religion". (I'm not making this up.) It was not reported whether she anticipates receiving her Semicha from Shmuley Boteach, or from Michael Jackson. Presumably at some point after she receives her rabinnic ordination, she may discover - lsomewhat along the lines of Hillel's convert who wished to be made Cohen Gadol - that she also needs to become Jewish.

Literary clues abound throughout the Torah. Today's first one is the title of the Parasha itself, which uses the word Matot - "staves" - to mean Tribes. The standard Hebrew word for tribe is Shevet, and one which the Torah uses throughout. By using this unusual word, the Torah is making a literary link to the devolving of authority that transpired between G-d and Moshe in Mizraim. There, the power and authority of G-d were manifested publicly, first by Aharon's Mateh - Rod - and later by Moshe's own Mateh. We deal with the rich imagery of Mateh / Yad - Rod / Hand - elsewhere, but the full transfer of authority and power is finally accomplished in Shemot 14:21, when Moshe stretches out his hand - rather than his rod - over Yam Suf and the sea splits. In today's Parasha, the use of the word Matot once again invokes the process of transferring authority and leadership, the critical final stages of Moshe's own career as leader of Klal Israel.

The opening section of the Parasha is intellectually jarring, in light of the incident of Banot Tzelophechad told last week. A case may be made for "voluntary obligation" - for people assuming responsibilities not automatically allocated to them, and thereby taking on certain rights or status within society. Last week, the Daughters of Tzelophechad refused to be forced to accept the domination of a man to enfranchise them, but rather insisted on standing on their own, as full and equal members of Klal Israel. And, though G-d's dictum to Moshe is in response to their specific plea, that this same rule applies to any other such families. As we said last week: it can hardly be that Tzelophechad was the only father in Klal Israel who dies leaving only daughters.

The opening section of this week's Parasha is a counterweight to that ruling. Not an antidote, but a balance - the other side of the coin. While certain Jewish thinkers might style it a "corrective", the message is significantly more complex. The Torah is re-emphasizing the social structure in place. This is a male-dominated society. What clearer proofs could we ask for than the law of inheritance, and the nullification of women's vows by their fathers or husbands?

And yet, Banot Tzelophechad did inherit. And, as we saw last week, it is possible to read their inheritance in the larger context of rights and obligations. By taking on their father's inheritance, they may even become responsible for military service.

Why is the Torah so stringent on announcing men's ability to countermand their women's vows? Are men being told that they should prevent their daughters and wives from taking on additional obligations? Or is there some subtler message?

Consider the perilous case of the Convert. There are Halachic opinions that the level of obligation of the Convert is higher than that of one who is born Jewish. The moment the Convert steps out of the waters of the Mikveh, she or he is 100% obligated to observe 100% of Mitzvot and Halacha, 100% of the time. There are those who hold that this level and standard of obligation is more stringent than the level required of one born Jewish.

My understanding of the Rambam's Laws of Prayer is that women and men are both obligated to pray every day. For men, the obligation is met by three formalized daily prayer services: the words are fixed, the order and content of the prayers is established and is not to be altered. But what are women to do?

Women are supposed to acknowledge, to praise and to supplicate G-d in some fashion. It looks to me that men have it much easier. We look at our watch, slap ourselves on the forehead and say "Gevalt! I almost missed Mincha! 'Ashrei yoshvei beitecha...'" Women have an amorphous obligation to step aside from their day's activities and commune with G-d. A simplistic reading of this concept places women's prayer much closer to what appears to be the Rambam's ideal for the Jewish relationship with G-d than men's prayer can ever come. Women, it would seem, are required to be religious philosophers. Men are only required to be obedient apprentices.

When we left Mizraim, the Rambam writes, G-d commanded us concerning the rituals, the offerings and sacrifices of the Mishkan, so that we would believe that we had a religion. The ideal would appear to be a direct communing, a relationship with G-d. But to our minds, there is no relationship without a formal religion, and formal religion means ritual, means incense, offerings and the ritual slaughter of animals. "Have it your way!" G-d says. The substitution of Tefilla for sacrifice is, according to Rambam's thought, a gigantic step in the right direction. Is the Rambam's own notion of women's prayer a radical further step? I may be showing more my ignorance of the Rambam than my knowledge, but from my rudimentary understanding, it appears that women may be much closer to the Torah's ideal than men can ever come.

Why does the Torah lay it on so thick with men's abilities to limit women's voluntarily taking on additional obligations? Is it to foresee, and somehow mitigate the expected backlash? Or is to to inject into the discourse a note of Realpolitik, to make it clear that the woman who takes on a man's duties and rights will be the exception in our society, and not the rule? Indeed: to emphasize how rare it is that anyone chooses to step over the bounds of what is merely required, and take it upon themselves to give much, much more.

Those wishing to view the Torah as a repressive document will dismiss this section of the Parasha as male-chauvinist claptrap. Those viewing the Torah as a complex and eternal document may see in these restrictive dicta a cautionary word: Last week's portion made clear the natural rights of women in our society. This week's points out forcefully that, just because something is your natural right, it does not mean it will be easily won.

Finally, the notion that women might take on men's roles can, in some measure, make their lives simpler. How much easier to step aside for a few minutes three times a day and recite a prepared text, rather than having to make time for an introspective and heartfelt reaching-out to G-d.

Last week, after Moshe brings the case of Banot Tzelophechad for divine intpretation, G-d instructs him that he will now "be gathered to his people", that he will die, as did his brother Aharon.

This week it may appear that G-d has a change of attitude, when Moshe is ordered to undertake the military foray against the Midianites. We apparently knew nothing of the drama that played itself out over our heads, as Bil'am and Balak ranged across the mountaintops. It would seem that the Midianites themselves knew of it, though. The fact that we fell into the local practices could be seen by us as a moral lapse. The Midianites, however, may view it as the efficacy of their curse. If we had merely left them, they could say: "Their god has much power, but turns aside for our gods." Therefore, we are commanded to destroy them, in order to assert the dominance of G-d.

Yet, if we look forward to the end of Sefer Bamidbar, the end of next week's Parasha, we see that Moshe does, in fact, end his career with a statement about Banot Tzelophechad, and articulating the principle that property is to be retained within the tribe. Thus, there is individuality, even within the Klal.

At the beginning of chapter 32, the Tribes of Gad and Reuven request lands outside the borders of Cana'an. And, while there is some discussion about their request, Moshe ends up giving these lands, not only to these two tribes, but also the the Tribe of Menashe. The phrase used in Hebrew - Chatzi shevet Menashe - is ambiguous: is the Tribe of Menashe a "half-tribe" which, together with its brother half-tribe Efraim constitute the whole Tribe of Yosef? Or is the land being given only to half the Tribe of Menashe?

The real question remains: what is the Tribe of Menashe doing here at all? They did not ask for a possession outside the Land.

Who are "one-half of the Tribe of Menashe"? Presumably, the women. The Daughters of Tzelophechad, for example, who were of the Tribe of Menashe, and who will be ordered, next week, to keep their inheritance within the Tribe. Which half did Moshe give the new lands to? Perhaps he divided the women from the men, knowing that the power of the women of Menashe would be curtailed if they were required to submit all their own decisions to their fathers and husbands - as detailed in the opening passages of this Parasha.

The Daughters of Tzelophechad identify themselves with their father. To them, the inheritance is not about what they will own, but about keeping their father's name alive. Why is this important, in the context of this Parasha?

In Parashat Beha'alotcha, Eldad and Medad stand in the midst of the camp and utter prophecy. Rashi tells us they were prophesying the death of Moshe - that G-d would bring the People to the Land, and Moshe would die. Could it be that Gad and Reuven - following the Midrash - had enriched themselves by looting and pillaging the conquered peoples? That their desire for lands outside of the Land was motivated by greed, and by the wish to retain autonomy - to not be subject to the moral laws dictated by Torah?

But look: if their possession is in the lands of the conquered peoples outside the borders of Cana'an, then does this become part of the Promised Land? Are the "facts on the ground" sufficient to establish these lands as part of Eretz Israel? And if so, does that not mean that Moshe is already inside the Land? And if so, he might not have to die. Perhaps there is a way to trick G-d, to countermand the order. To outwit G-d.

G-d - so said Albert Einstein - does not play at dice with the universe. G-d does not manipulate human history for the mere fun of it. If the purpose of granting the request of Gad and Reuven was to respond to a new political reality, it can be seen as G-d and Moshe co-opting what was about to happen anyway - of human Free Will unleashed, and beyond the control of Heaven. But if - as when G-d sanctioned the request of Banot Tzelophechad - these upstarts are retroactively defined as having acted properly, there can be no dissension.

The Half-Tribe of Menashe is brought in, and we see that Moshe is a master negotiator - especially for the sake of the unity of Klal Israel. Moshe negotiates with Gad and Reuven and then plants the seed of Menashe among them, because Menashe is the tribe that evinces a pure love for the Land, whose daughters do not want land for themselves, but only to perpetuate their father's name.

Gad and Reuven want to receive a gift. In return, Moshe requires that they accept a responsibility. The Daughters of Tzelophechad want to take on additional responsibility. In return, G-d gives them a gift. And G-d puts them all together now, so that the selflessness of Menashe can temper the acquisitiveness of Gad and Reuven.

At the incident of the Golden Calf, G-d told Moshe: "Stand aside! I will consume them in an instant. Then you and I can have a new relationship." Moshe had to point out that this was not the Plan. That unity can not be imposed, but must come from the free desires of the People.

It has taken some doing, but it appears that G-d has learned a new trick or two.

Let us hope that the Leaders of Klal Israel are able to learn from this as well.

Yours for a better world.


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