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Friday, July 17, 2015

Parshat Matot-Maasei: Embracing What Makes Us Most Afraid

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 divorcée. 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. Even within Judaism. For instance, according to traditional Jewish law, still observed by many within the Orthodox community, since a women's voice or presence is considered potentially seductive, thereby distracting men from prayer, women's voices may not be heard and they are often relegated to the back of the sanctuary, or off to the side or up in a balcony (note: this law is observed to varying degrees even within the Orthodox world, and this is only one reason behind the tradition).

In the most strictly observant (or I would say repressive) the women can be found behind a wall with only a tiny window for them to try and look down upon the men. Again the message here is, in part, since men can't control their libido when around women, the women must then suffer the consequences.

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. In other words, maybe the men should be the ones relegated to the balcony if they cannot control their lusts, rather than the women.

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 sexual or gender identity. 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. But often rather than focusing on ourselves, we instead look for the “problematic” trait in someone else, and we criticize them, avoid them, and even verbally or physically attack them.

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." They are simply the parts of ourselves with which we still struggle.

I couldn't help but think of the debates going on in our country, in Israel and throughout the world dealing with issues of racism, gender bias, homophobia, misogyny, Islamic extremism, anti-Islamic response or backlash, and the list goes on.......

All of these prejudices, as well as racism and misogyny which is built into so many governmental systems, are based on this concept of us vs. the other. But ultimately, there is no other. As I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah, there is no “us and them.” In mystical terms, there is only the One. We are all part of that One, which we call God. But when we split the one into the many we can then focus on diversity, which is a blessing from God, and turn into into difference, which is a curse create by humanity. When we do this, we then feel the need to bolster and support those we see as “similar” our of fear of those who are “different.” And people often do that by blaming the problems and their origins on their differences, rather than looking within at the true origins of their prejudice, mistrust and even hatred.

Throughout the Torah we are reminded not to oppress the stranger, for we were once strangers in Egypt. But we must also not oppress that which we view as the stranger within ourselves. For that which we fear most within us is the root of what we mistrust, hate and oppress in the world around us.

We must start recognizing that our fear of violence, aggression and hatred in others is, at least in part, rooted in our fear, discomfort and denial of the capacity for violence, aggression and hatred within ourselves. And so we try to oppress or control that which is within us by trying to control or attack what we portray as being found only within others. But in the end, we cannot control these aspects of our world and ourselves any more than we can control anything. All we can do is become more mindful and recognize the difficult pieces within all of us. We must look straight at that which 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.

I can only imagine how differently the scenario in this week's parashah might have ended, or how differently recent incidents of racial strife and all kinds of incidents rooted in fear and prejudice may have turned out if people changed their perspective. All we need to do is look at what we fear or don't understand and embrace it as something which is part of us all, rather than trying to destroy or control it because it is something that belongs to the “other.” 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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