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Friday, July 5, 2013

Parshat Matot-Maasei: Embracing the "Other" (which is really not "other" at all)

This week's parashah/portion is the double portion called Matot-Maasei, which brings to a close the book of Bemidbar/Numbers. I will focus on the text of Matot, in the beginning of the parashah we read that if a man makes a vow it is binding on him. However, if a woman makes a vow while still living in her father's house and her father becomes aware of the vow and agrees to its terms, then the vow remains in effect. However, if he does not approve of the vow, then he may render it null and void. The same applies if the woman is married and her husband discovers the vow. If her father or husband do annul her vow, the woman is not to be held as guilty for not fulfilling the vow she has made. However, if her husband agrees to the vow upon discovering it and later changes his mind and annuls the vow, then there is guilt, but it is to be upon the husband's head.

Viewing this text through 21st century eyes, it is yet another example of how women had little or no control over their own fate. The only way a woman's vow could be binding without her father or husband's approval would be if she kept it a secret or if she were a widow or divorcee. In other words, only through divorce, death or deceit could a woman make a binding vow of her own accord.

As if this were not enough, the following passage does even more violence, literally speaking, to women. For in this passage, Moses berates the leaders of the tribes that, during their slaughter of the Midianites in their most recent battle they spared the Midianite women. This was particularly vexing to Moses because he believed it was the women who had "induced the Israelites to trespass against God" through illicit sexual conduct, thereby prompting Moses to attack. Therefore, Moses commanded the captains to murder any Midianite woman who was not a virgin, and to let the virgins survive and be counted as part of the spoils of war. In other words, as property.

I find these texts to be distasteful and misogynistic. However, as is often the case, that which we find to most troubling is often where we can find new teachings if we pay close attention. But how does one derive meaning from such problematic passages?

In first reading the text, it seems clear to me that in the biblical view, women could not be trusted. If they could, then there would be no need to give men the power to annul their vows. In addition, women are viewed as dangerous, especially if they are sexually active (outside of marriage), as made evident by Moses' anger and his command to kill all of the Midianite women who were not virgins.

In pondering these texts, it appears that the source of the mistrust and impetus for the violence commanded towards the women may well be the fear and mistrust that the men have of themselves. For no matter how "seductive" the Midianite women might have been, the men would not have "trespassed" with them if they did not have the same sexual desires and if they were able to control them. But, as is often the case throughout history, and until today, it is much easier to simply blame it on women. 

Rather than looking within and seeing what was in their own hearts, it was easier to look outward, to see the perceived immorality of the neighboring women and then destroy them. This kind of behavior was not new then, and it still happens today, as we are all too well aware. If Moses had wanted to help the Israelite men to avoid transgressive behavior in the future, he would have done better to command them to look inside their own hearts, to find the lusts and desires within and pay attention to them, rather than focus on the external forces that "drove them" to act as they did.

However, this interpretation does not address the passage concerning vows and women. In order to come to terms with this passage I feel the need to more drastically re-read in a more allegorical, and psychological, manner.

We know that each human being has male and female characteristics within. For each of us there is part within that feels more authentic. In a manner of speaking, there is a part within us that feels more like "I" and a part which feels more like "other" within our own individual psyches. The parts within that seem most like other are often the parts that we have kept most hidden throughout our lives. However, these parts are no more or less a part of who we are than those parts with which we are more comfortable. Yet, they are the parts try to ignore, repress, destroy or control. In a way, they are the parts within us that we don't trust.

Carl Jung wrote that there are aspects of the other sex within each us, what he referred to as the animus and anima, but I am talking about more than gender. For I am referring to any and all parts within us with which we are so uncomfortable or which we fear so much, that we try to repress, ignore or even
destroy it. However, if we don't succeed, we can at least try to control those parts. We try to do this not only to ourselves, but when we see that problematic attribute in someone else, we may also avoid or attack them as well. I think we all know that this is true in our lives.

In the Torah text, a husband or father has ultimate control over the vows of his wife or daughter. Both are seen as an extension of him, and both are seen as other and not to be trusted. This is where the two passages dealing with women in the parashah connect. For just as the women of Midian are viewed as having the ability to control the Israelite men and bring about their moral downfall, so too a wife or daughter who has made the wrong kind of vow (and we can only imagine what those vows might have been) could bring about the downfall of her father or husband.

Following my analogy to a conclusion, it is the pieces of ourselves that we view as “other” of which we are most afraid and which we try to control or destroy. But it is because we remain ignorant or living in fear of these pieces that they have the potential to cause us the most suffering and harm. However, the solution is not to try to control or destroy them - whether within us or within others who bring up these
feelings within us. Rather, the solution is to become more aware of them, acknowledge them, and accept them as part of who we are. These unknown "other" parts of us are not bad or evil. They are not "other."

Ultimately, we cannot control them, for there is no "them." There is not even "I." For all of us and all that is are simply part of the oneness of the universe that connects us with every other "I." Throughout the Torah we are reminded not to oppress the stranger, for we were once strangers in Egypt. And so too we must not only not oppress, but we must embrace, what we view as the stranger within. For we cannot control these unknown aspects of our world and ourselves any more than we can control anything. All we can do is become more mindful of what is within each of us, and what we see in others, that makes us most afraid. Then we must look at that fear with compassion and with honesty in order to determine how to best approach it so that we no longer feel the need to control it out of the believe that, if we don't, it will ultimately control us.

Though I have no doubt that this is not anywhere near what was the original intention or lesson of the Torah text, we are always striving to find new meanings within Torah. I can only imagine how differently the scenario in this week's parashah might have ended if they had looked at things through this perspective and embraced what they saw as different or 'other' rather than being afraid of it and trying to destroy or control it. How different all of our lives, and our world, might be if we could practice this on a more regular basis ourselves.

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