We can choose truth, justice and righteousness over destruction: Matot/Jeremiah | Arik Ascherman


This week’s parashah (Matot. Numbers 30:2-32:42) is one of the most difficult in the entire Torah for those of us who believe in a God of justice and compassion who cares deeply for all humanity and the planet. This includes women’s lack of agency, vengeful slaughter, plunder, the taking of human loot, and dispossession. It reminds us that if we have intellectual honesty, we cannot simply make the Torah a book fashioned in our image by fiat. Parashat Matot supports the arguments of secular progressives who argue that it is not worth fighting to redeem the Torah, believers who cannot accept that the Torah reflects God’s will, and the thousands who have attempted this week to create new outposts to serve as bases of violence, dispossession, vandalism and theft.

The leaders and participants in this very intentional disregard by the settlers of Israeli law see themselves as carrying out the Will of God. The settlers of the “shepherd outposts” no doubt see themselves as continuing in the tradition of the Israelites who seized land for their cattle and sheep in our portion. They wanted us to be seduced by images of families and children doing their Zionist duty by pitching tents, singing, playing and studying Torah. All this week I’ve been posting on social media samples thousands of photos I have taken over the years showing the true face of the outposts. As if I needed further proof, I woke up this morning to the message that the trees belonging to the villagers of Turmos Aya had been slaughtered on their lands next to the Adei Ad and Geulat Tzion outposts, as well as many “legal” settlements nearby.

Those of us who believe in a God of justice and compassion, who have the intellectual honesty not to excise portions of the Torah, and yet continue to cherish the Torah as an inspiration and guide in our lives , have to work very hard this week. If I didn’t truly believe in a God of justice and compassion, and if I didn’t experience that God in my life and in the Torah, I might also be one of those who decides that effort is not enough. not worth it. Not only do I believe in it, but the events of this week are proof that we cannot give up the field to those who exploit the simpler interpretations on our part to lead the masses to perpetrate injustice. While many of my friends find moral inspiration elsewhere, my faith demands that I challenge those who profane the name of God by harming other human beings in the name of Torah by challenging them in the name of Torah.

I think we can read Matot differently, if not at ease. I cannot twist this parashah to reflect the God I believe in. Luckily, I can do that in many other sections of the Torah. However, I can distinguish between what we are ordered to do and what we have the choice not to do. I can distinguish between what should be considered a guide for all times and what can be considered specific to a particular time and place.

I remember God challenging us by giving us the ability to choose.

Fathers and husbands have the ability to rescind the vows of daughters and wives. They don’t have to and can choose to honor the agency of the women in their lives. Unfortunately, we are allowed to loot. However, elsewhere in the Bible plunder is forbidden, and we are certainly not obligated to plunder. It is undeniable that throughout the Bible, the Israelites are ordered to commit massacres. It is also true that the Talmud teaches us that the commands to slaughter specific peoples for specific sins are for peoples who no longer exist. We must not extrapolate the orders to dispossess and slaughter to the peoples of our time.

I would prefer that God not give us the possibility to act in the way that God allows and in certain contextual situations, commands. I find it hard to understand, I am deeply distressed and I have no satisfactory explanation. However, I am also grateful that God gives us the opportunity to grow, learn, develop, and choose differently. If it is apologetics, it is no more apologetics than those who explain the commandments not to oppress non-Jews living among us, and to take care of the non-Jew, of the orphan and the widow.

And let’s not forget the last words of this week’s haftarah, the first of three warning haftarah leading up to Tisha B’Av. After preaching about the coming destruction resulting from our misdeeds, Jeremiah says:

“If you return, O Israel, declares Adonai

If you come back to me

If you remove your abominations from My Presence

And don’t hesitate

And, swear, “as Adonai lives”

In truth, justice and righteousness—

The nations will bless themselves through you,

And are rented by you.

(Jeremiah 4:1-2)

Justice and righteousness are words that will come up again and again in the warning haftarot, and in our readings for Tisha B’Av herself. They are the potential antidote to impending destruction.

Malbim teaches that “truth” refers to faith in intellectual principles, such as the unity of God. Justice and righteousness refer to deeds. Justice refers to interpersonal commandments – how we treat our fellow human beings. Justice refers to ritual commandments – the relationship between us and God. The three bring a flood of blessings to all who incorporate them into their lives both in belief and in action. Not only do we bring blessings to ourselves, but we become an inspiration to all of humanity to bring those blessings into their lives.

I would also add that we not only inspire, but we bring blessings because we act in ways that bring good things to others.

We can choose a different path, the path back to our truest and highest selves.

Our destiny is not to be a curse to the nations, but a blessing.

Ultimately, we can be a blessing both to ourselves and to others, if we choose truth, justice, and righteousness, and read Torah through the lens of the belief that it is what what God expects of us.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization “Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice”. Previously, he directed Rabbis For Human Rights for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought-after speaker, has received numerous awards for his human rights work, and has been featured in several documentary films, including “Israel vs. Israel” in 2010. He and “Torat Tzedek” received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund Human Rights Award for 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith-based human rights activism.


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