This parsha, or Torah portion, Matot, and the next, Masei, conclude the fourth book of the Torah and attempt to summarize the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert and their imminent entrance into the Land of Israel.
Matot describes some very unsettling instructions from G-d: the brutal punishment of the Midianites for their role in seducing the Israelites into false worship and immoral sexual activity. The Israelites are commanded to annihilate the entire male Midianite population, seize the women and children, all their beasts and herds and all their wealth. Upon discovering these actions by the Midianites, Moses orders the execution of all non-virgin women and all boys. Moses takes this extreme decree, as he believes that those against the Israelites are against G-d. When one views an opponent as one’s enemy, one can justify horrible actions and when one’s enemy becomes the enemy of G-d, despicable actions become acceptable.
Furthermore, restrictions commanded against women, their obedience to their husbands or fathers is difficult to reconcile with our own sensibilities today. There is a struggle between fundamentalism and modernity in this parsha.
Another aspect of this parsha is to look at the seriousness of oath-taking and oath-breaking. The tribes of Gad and Reuben make a request of Moses that they be allowed to remain behind with their flocks and cattle while the other tribes battle the Midianites and that they will build sheepfolds for their flocks and towns for their children. Moses agrees to their request for territory where they are stationed rather than the land the other tribes are engaged in war with. The conflict here appears to be the separation from the community to protect material goods at the expense of human life and welfare.
This parsha confronts me with decisions and actions that I make regarding the value of placing human life and welfare above material goods for personal reasons that violate my inclusion and support for ‘community,’ and how I can construct a rationale for this behavior when I see my opponents as ‘enemies’ and that somehow the material goods are compensation for the crime or pain that I have been subjected to.
My kavannah, or intention, for this week is to contemplate how often we attempt to justify our negative behavior toward others. Do we feel this is due justice? How do these behaviors separate us from our community? I am reminded by this parsha that every decision we make has only two outcomes: to affirm the dignity of all life or to deny that dignity.\