D’var Torah for Matot-Masei: redeeming the instructions to displace and destroy

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered yesterday morning at CBI on last week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei.

 

God spoke to Moshe on the plains of Moab near the Jordan, and said: speak to the children of Israel and tell them: when you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you will displace all who dwell in the land… and if you do not, they will be as thorns in your eyes, they will wound your sides…and I will drive you out of the land instead of them. –Numbers 33:55-56

 

Some weeks it’s difficult to draw a clear connection between the Torah portion and contemporary reality. Not this week. This week we’re in parashat MatotMasei, which contains instructions for displacing the Canaanites, as well as instructions regarding the future borders of the promised land.

There are those who hold that this week’s Torah portion is justification for establishing Jewish sovereignty over “Greater Israel.” Are our only options either to accept that interpretation, or to disregard these verses altogether?

The Hasidic rabbi known as the Sfat Emet reads this text creatively. He says that we ourselves are the “borders” into which holiness can flow. Those other inhabitants, he argues, weren’t able to experience the holiness inherent in the land. Only when the Israelites entered did the supernal land of Israel, the ideal Israel on high, merge with the earthly land of Israel here below. And when we prepare our hearts and souls with Torah, he says, God causes holiness to flow into us, contained by the borders of who we are.

I love the idea that we ourselves are the “borders” into which holiness can flow…but I chafe at the ethnocentrism. I espouse a post-triumphalist Judaism; I understand other religious traditions as meaningful paths to God. I can’t accept that only we are capable of true holiness and true connection with our Source.

What, then, can we do with these verses?

The first thing we might do is look at their context. Along with these instructions are instructions for destroying the Canaanites’ figured objects, molten images, and cult places. Perhaps, then, these instructions apply only to the nonbelievers of Biblical times; one could argue that today’s monotheists are an entirely different category.

Maybe they can be read descriptively rather than prescriptively. The Torah isn’t arguing that this is what should happen if we don’t dispossess the inhabitants of the land — rather informing us that this is what will happen, the natural karmic outgrowth of occupation.

I’m reminded of a poem I read recently by Palestinian poet Tawfiq Zayyad, in the anthology Before There Is Nowhere To Stand, a collection of poems arising out of the conflict in Israel and Palestine. It’s called “Here We Will Stay,” and it begins

In Lidda, in Ramla, in the Galilee
we shall remain
like a wall upon your chest,
and in your throat
like a shard of glass,
a cactus thorn,
and in your eyes a sandstorm…

A cactus thorn and sand in our eyes — that’s more or less what Torah promises.

How do we balance this week’s Torah portion, with its instructions regarding displacement and violence, with the verses in Torah which call us to social justice and which champion the needs of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger? (For that matter, how can we balance the bloody slaughter of the Midianites with Torah’s repeated calls to seek peace and pursue it?) Is it possible, or desirable, to read these verses today without thinking of Gaza and the West Bank: those who settle in Judea and Samaria, and those who argue that the settlements are a primary obstacle to peace?

Allow me to read our Torah portion expansively. What if we read the verses like so:

If you choose to dispossess the inhabitants of the land, then you’d better kill or displace all of them — otherwise you’re in for a world of reciprocal suffering, a spiral of violence which will enmesh generation after generation in hatred and bloodshed. But maybe someday, when humanity has evolved beyond this kind of tribalism, you’ll reach the possibility of treating one another as fellow human beings despite your religious and cultural differences. That’s the path to wholeness and peace, and if you don’t seek it, you’ll be driven out of the land yourselves.

Does Torah actually say this? Not in so many words. But we can choose to read between the lines, to seek the white fire between the black fire of the text. Have we collectively evolved to the point where we can seek coexistence and common ground? I don’t know. I hope and pray that the answer is yes.

Rabbi Arthur Segal notes in a d’var Torah on Matot-Masei that this week’s portion contains instructions about the “cities of refuge” to which accidental murderers could flee in order to prevent the vicious cycle of blood feuds. He points out that we can come away from this week’s Torah portion either “remembering to do genocide to our enemies,” or choosing to relinquish vengeance. I believe I know which option I would rather pursue.

I’ll close with the Torah poem I wrote in 2008, after a visit to the West Bank. (You can find this poem in 70 faces, Phoenicia 2011.)

DOWNSIDE (MAS’EI)

But if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow to remain shall be stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land in which you live[.] — Numbers 33:55

Here’s the part
God apparently didn’t say
at least not aloud
where anyone could hear:

dispossessing anyone
not as easy as it sounds
and tends to have
side effects

feelings of guilt
among the tender-hearted
and a certain hardening
of those who do battle

refugee camps
persisting for generations
breeding bitter fury
which tends to explode

and don’t forget
the damage done
to your chelek Elohim,
the eternal spark in you

which dims
with each interrogation
each humiliation
of another face of God.

I pray that our wrestle with this week’s Torah portion, and with today’s geopolitical realities, be for the sake of heaven and for the sake of peace.

Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

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One response to “D’var Torah for Matot-Masei: redeeming the instructions to displace and destroy

  1. I appreciate the different angle on the scriptures; not much we can do about the past, but you’re right, we can certainly work at healing the hurts and righting wrongs we are confronted with. Apparently Naomi was able to change Ruth’s perception of the Israelites by the way she lived, and so can we today. It seems we are given a choice and it is more productive to choose the compassionate route.
    Thank you for your insight.

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