Of Compromise, Negotiation, Cooperation: Mattot — Mas’ei, August 5, 2016 / 2 Av 5776


By Rabbi Lisa Edwards

Last night at a Ritual Committee meeting we asked some micro questions — who will set up the card table on the bima that the clergy requested for Rosh Hashanah morning? And some mega questions:

what does it mean to be Jewish in this time and in this place?

And why is being Jewish important to us?

I love the Ritual Committee — a group of people willing to talk about many things, and do many things.

How can we help BCC members and our guests find spiritual comfort and spiritual challenge?

How can we help make Judaism a gift, a blessing, a welcome aspect of people’s lives and identities?

By the way, if you’d like to consider joining the Ritual Committee, come see me after services. As you can see, it’s an ambitious group, so we could use more heads and hands and hearts.

But why I’m bringing this up is not just to recruit people for the BCC Ritual Committee, but rather as a kind of reminder of the season on the Jewish calendar we are in right now. Tonight begins the second Shabbat of what is known as the “Three Weeks” or in Hebrew Bein ha-Metzarim (Hebrew: בין המצרים, “Between the Straits”) (cf “dire straits”) — they come between the 17th of Tammuz and next Saturday night, when we will gather here to observe Tisha b’Av, sometimes called the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.

Yes, Tisha b’Av is a hard sell, even for the Ritual Committee. And yet, even though I’m generally a pretty cheerful person, Tisha b’Av and these 3 weeks, they move me. In part I appreciate them because from this low point in the Jewish year we climb up and out and head toward some of the high points — the Days of Awe — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the days of self-reflection and inspiration leading up to them during the month of Elul. I love the deliberateness of this time of year — that we tell ourselves to be sad. And also absence of deliberateness — the way, after years of “living” this calendar — I can find myself feeling a little sad, a little low, a little anxious without thinking about it, without “talking myself into it.” Not that there isn’t reason for those feelings these days, of course, but I think they enter by stealth, by calendar.

But there’s another aspect to these calendar “invitations” that I also appreciate. It’s something I appreciate about Judaism in general. That even on the saddest day of the year, when we sit, as we’ll do here next Saturday night, on the floor and tell sad stories and sing sad melodies, we don’t do it for very long. Instead, the liturgy and the music and the thoughts we share are intended to help us move up and out of that dark place, or those narrow places. When we get up off the floor next Saturday night, we’ll walk out, I hope, inspired not only by the way Jews always “pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again,” but also by inspiring ideas of what to do next — how to do that other thing – besides whine that Jews do so well — and that is work together to make the world a better place.

This week in Torah also finds us in a kind of a narrow place, but also an inspiring one. This week we finish our annual reading of the Book of Numbers, B’midbar – meaning in the Wilderness. And the Israelites, now at the end of their 40 years of living in the wilderness, find themselves on the east bank of the Jordan River, looking over into the Land God had promised them oh so long ago, but not yet able to cross into it.

Before we cross another body of water into a land of possibility as we did 40 years ago coming out of Egypt, when God parted a sea for us, we have a few more things arrangements to make. Here we are, a whole new generation preparing to enter the Promised Land, the older generation has died out, and the millenials — or is it Generation X or Y or Z or all three? –are making some arrangements before they’re willing to proceed with the plan their parents and grandparents had made with Moses and with God.

Two big negotiations go on in the last two Torah portions of the Book of Numbers. And we would do well to learn from the youngers, I think, for in these times of uncivil public conversation, and of politicians less and less willing to make compromises or discuss all (or any) options, these concluding Torah portions of the Book of Numbers give us two illustrations of the way plans can (or should) be alterable by mutual agreement.

In Parashat Matot, we find the Israelites encamped on the steppes of Moab, on the east bank of the Jordan, cattle country so rich that two and a half tribes who are cowboys — cattlemen—the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh—ask to remain there rather than go into the Land: “it would be a favor to us . . . if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan” (Numbers 32:5).

Knowing that there is a battle ahead if the Israelites are to settle in the Promised Land, Moses immediately suspects them: “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” (32:6). After some explanations and negotiations, Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh agree to be shock-troops for the rest of the Israelites by entering into battle first, provided they can then return and dwell on the east side of the Jordan. Moses does not live to see the plan accomplished, but we can find the plan still firmly in place when we read beyond Torah and into the Book of Joshua, the first book of the next section of the Hebrew Bible (see Joshua, chapters 1, 4, 13).

The compromise serves the special interests of these tribes and presumably the greater good, though it is a radical departure from God’s forty-year plan for all of the surviving generations of the two and a half tribes to move into the land west of the Jordan.

And the second compromise is at the end of Mas-ei, the last portion of B’midbar, where we meet again the daughters of Zelophehad –Mahlah, Noah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah — Ilene Cohen introduced us to them here last Friday night. Mahlah, Noah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah brought about important legislation in the Torah portion Pinchas, inspiring God Godself to create a law for all time allowing daughters to inherit (their “law,”mishpatan, Numbers 27:5) from their father if he died with no sons. These bold women stepped forward to ask/argue in front of all the male leaders and all the people. And upon hearing their argument about “justice,” “The Eternal One said to Moses, ‘The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just . . . transfer their father’s share to them,’ ” 27:6-7).

But in the last Torah portion of Numbers, Mas’ei, their male relatives appeal the earlier decision, noting that “if they [the daughters of Zelophehad] marry persons from another Israelite tribe, their share will be cut off from our ancestral portion . . .; thus our allotted portion will be diminished” (36:3). Moses is not seen speaking to God this time, but he claims to be responding to the sisters al pi Adonai, “at the Eternal’s bidding” (36:5). Moses amends the new law, requiring women who inherit ancestral land to marry into a clan of their father’s tribe (36:6), which limits the women’s choice of spouses and keeps the property within the tribe. And “the daughters of Zelophehad did as the Eternal had commanded Moses” (36:10). It sounds like two steps forward, one step back, and perhaps it is, but it could be argued that they agree to the limitation in order to better the lot for all their tribe, not just for themselves.

The stories of the cowboys of the Israelites and the daughters of Zelophehad, included in Torah in such detail, speak to the importance of the next generation, and of their desire and ability to change norms and expectations, as well as their willingness to bend when persuasive needs and desires of others arise.

And that Moses allows, even aids, in changing his earlier rulings and God’s previous instructions, adds to the long list of what we can learn from him (and from God) about law, leadership, and life.

I like it that we read these stories of change — of a different generation of Israelites with different needs and desires — stretching the boundaries of what it means to be a Jew during these three weeks on the Jewish calendar. An embedded lesson, reminder, that Judaism itself, though it daily calls on us to remember our past, does not ever call on us to live in the past, but rather to live in the present and look to the future, ready and willing whenever necessary to make changes — compromises and promises — that allow us to adapt to the places we are going and the lives we want to live.

The custom when Jews complete reading a Book of Torah is to recite the phrase, Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik, “Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.” The phrase seems especially appropriate in these weeks and in these months — in this curious and challenging time in our history. Shall we say it together?

Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik, “Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.”

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