July 2017, Parshat Matot-Massei

Dear friends,

This week’s double-barrled portion, Parshat Matot-Massei, is the longest Torah parsha of the entire yearly cycle. When I was 14 and running a business, with my 13 year old brother, leyning in a number of Shules, this week’s reading always created problems for my tight time allowance to get from the upstairs early minyan in Caulfield to Ohr Chadash, to Ohel Devorah to Yeshivah Gedolah.

I also remember feeling a little ‘ripped off’. On average there are roughly 90 verses read weekly from the Torah; in this portion there are 244 verses! That worked out that a Shule paying $25 a week got 10 verses for a dollar. Even the $3 pay raise we eventually negotiated with my favourite early Minyan of very old men, did not do much to alleviate my sense of injustice. Lucky for us we ran a 6 Shule operation which meant we each got $75, which after pay raise went to $76.50. This meant we were able to buy tickets to go visit the Rebbe in New York pretty much yearly, and whilst there purchase the latest Walkman with the most amount of buttons we could find purchased in cash from downtown Borough Park where the best deals were to be had.

This week’s parsha gave me the opportunity to indulge in a little nostalgia. In particular recalling the memory of the El Adon song sung by a group of very early risers in the 80+ bracket, all of whom were Holocaust survivors, is something that still sends shivers down my spine.

At any rate, this week’s portion is a long one. As such there are lots of noteworthy components of it. For instance, it has the law which is rather explicit in its suggestion that a woman is legally subservient to her husband. Commitments she may have undertaken may be either confirmed or cancelled at the whim of the husband. How to make sense of this in light of our current humanist values we hold so dear is something that needs discussion, just not here. Indeed, after watching an ABC documentary highlighting the statistical relationship between a fundamentalist reading of the bible and higher rates of domestic violence, I believe this is a very important conversation to have.

In another section there is a war of revenge on the Midianites for having seduced the Israelites into mass orgies. What’s the problem you might ask? The problem is that they were commanded to kill every single male, young and old. In fact, initially they left the children alive as spoil of war but were then specifically condemned for doing so and instructed to butcher them all. The women were likewise to be killed; just the young girls were allowed to be taken as bounty.

Again, this story raises so many questions of huge consequence. Do we exact revenge? Is promiscuity really a worse evil than such a scene of death and destruction? Can children ever be justifiably targeted in any war let alone a war of moral high ground? These and other questions are burning to be discussed but will have to wait for another time.

The section I would like to talk about is the part which describes the journey of the ancient Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land. Everyone knows that the Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years. What is lesser known is that actually most of the time they were chilling out in awesome camping spots. One place alone had 12 wells of water and 70 date trees! In fact, Rashi breaks down their travels and calculates that in 38 years they would have moved only 20 times. That’s an average of changing campsites every six months. Considering that Parks Victoria only allows a week in any one spot, to me it sounds like they were in heaven.

Fancy this being a punishment. God provides them with food, water, shelter, education, security, and awesome camping arrangements, all they had to do was move from one oasis to the next every once in a long while.

The idea then that the Jews were punished by having to wander in the desert for 40 years needs radical reinterpretation. And just such reinterpretation is found in Kabbalah where it is taught that the generation who wandered through the desert were a deeply spiritual bunch. They didn’t want to go into the Promised Land because they did not want to struggle with the mundane pursuits that inevitably consumes civilisation. They much preferred their needs in life outsourced to God whilst they spiritually connected with themselves, their loved ones, and Nature.

This idea that God is nature is ubiquitous in Kabbalah and Chassidic thought. One example of this is the interpretation given for a rather perplexing problem. How is it that Judaism, a religion obsessed with the One God would come to call one their God, Elohim, which literally means gods plural?!

The explanation is given that though God is one, the experience of God comes in infinite variety. And where is this most apparent? In nature!

This concept resonates deeply with me. Recently I turned 40 and as my birthday present my lovely wife gave me the opportunity to go and spend a week alone camping in a temperate rainforest in the Otways. As soon as I arrived I went for a walk and all I could do was smile from ear to ear. And it wasn’t only about the fact that my two-year-old, bless him, wasn’t going to have the opportunity to disturb my sleep. Nor the fact that I was surrounded by the best mountain biking trails in Victoria.

There was rather a profound awareness of feeling connected to my environment which was filled with life everywhere in abundance. I felt connected and also humbled. We human have a sickness where we tend to zoom ourselves into focus and think that we are the centre of the universe. After a few minutes in a place devoid of human interference like Lake Elizabeth, inhabited by platypuses in the lake, foxes everywhere, and glow worms for night entertainment, one most easily gets the sense of a higher power, a higher power we call God.

It was rather auspicious that my 40th birthday experience should coincide with the portion of the Torah which discusses the camping experiences of Jews in biblical times. Whilst they may have taken it to the extreme by going bush for 40 years, the moral of the story, that we have easy access to God in nature, is inspiring and highly relevant to our world today.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur