Thoughts on Matot-Mas’ei (5777/2017)
(Numbers 30:2 – 36:13)
[dvar torah given on Friday, July 22, 2017 at Temple Israel, Duluth]
The title of the first portion of our double Torah portion for this Shabbat is “Matot” which means “Tribes”.
As it says in the opening of our parasha –
וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־רָאשֵׁ֣י הַמַּטּ֔וֹת לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֣ה הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָֽה׃
“Moses spoke to the heads of the TRIBES of the children of Israel, saying: This is the thing that Adonai has commanded”:
When I was in Israel during the summer of 2014 for a study mission of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, I attended a Shabbat morning service at Bet Daniel, Tel Aviv’s main Reform congregation. It was Shabbat Matot and an Israeli 13-year-old there was marking the occasion of his becoming a Bar Mitzvah. I recall vividly how he related to the idea of “Matot”/”Tribes” of Israel in his bar mitzvah speech. In the Torah, the idea of course refers to the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob. But in his bar mitzvah speech, the young man reflected upon how various modern “matot” exist in the State of Israel among the Jewish population --- Religious/Secular/Ashkenazi/Sephardi/Ethiopian/Rich and Poor. This was during the Gaza War, and the young man spoke of how, even as we were all sitting comfortably in synagogue, all of those different modern tribes were working together in the Israel Defense Forces to protect the nation from terrorist attacks.
Nowadays, we might also speak of Israeli followers of “Pluralist” Judaism as being a tribe unto itself as well. “Pluralisti” (פלורליסתי) was an adjective I heard a lot this past year in Israel in reference to all streams of Judaism that are open to and respectful of diverse expressions of faith. This includes Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative (aka “Masorti”) and even Modern Orthodox.
As Judaism has developed throughout the centuries, our interpretations of our sacred texts have evolved. Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are explicit and pro-active about this. But even in the Orthodox world, this evolution takes place – if not explicitly – then under the guise of applying supposedly eternal teachings to new factual situations. That’s a modus operandi that goes back to the Talmudic period if not earlier.
When we consider current controversies in the State of Israel over egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall [Hebrew: הכותל המערבי / “Hakotel Hama’aravi” or “Kotel” for short], over adoption of children by same-sex couples or other elements of Israeli life currently pitting Jew against Jew --- what’s really going on here is usually more about politics than about theology.
The ultra-Orthodox political parties in Israel are currently exercising their weight because they can. If Prime Minister Netanyahu didn’t need their support to hold up his narrow coalition government, we can rest assured that he wouldn’t have reneged on carrying out the provisions of the Kotel agreement that had been painstakingly negotiated 18 months ago.
In keeping with the ideal of “One Kotel for One People,” the January 2016 agreement provided that:
· The Kotel would have a single entryway for two prayer plazas: a northern plaza (about 1,800 square meters, in the Orthodox tradition) and a southern plaza (about 900 square meters in the egalitarian tradition).
· A governing commission would be chaired by the Jewish Agency Chairperson under the appointment of the Prime Minister, with representatives of the Conservative Movement, the Reform Movement, and "Women of the Wall", alongside representatives from the Israeli government; and
· Government budgets earmarked for the establishment and administration of an egalitarian prayer plaza would be designated and managed through the governing commission
Ironically, the very THING, the “DAVAR” about which Moses speaks to the heads of the Tribes of Israel is the matter of keeping one’s word.
אִישׁ֩ כִּֽי־יִדֹּ֨ר נֶ֜דֶר לַֽיהוָ֗ה אֽוֹ־הִשָּׁ֤בַע שְׁבֻעָה֙ לֶאְסֹ֤ר אִסָּר֙ עַל־נַפְשׁ֔וֹ לֹ֥א יַחֵ֖ל דְּבָר֑וֹ כְּכָל־הַיֹּצֵ֥א מִפִּ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה׃
“If a man makes a vow to Adonai or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.”
Supporters of religious pluralism are waiting for the Prime Minister to make good his promise.
The various arms of the Reform movement are currently lobbying for this and other expressions of religious pluralism in Israel.
Here are some excerpts from a resolution issued this week by the North American Board of the Union for Reform Judaism:
The Israel governmental preference for the ultra-orthodox at the expense of the vast majority of Israelis is not new. But the depth and breadth of attacks on religious equality have increased tremendously in recent years.
This dynamic is manifest in the increased encroachment of the coercive ultra-orthodox monopoly on all aspects of Israeli life from cradle to chuppah to grave. It is evident in matters of personal status (conversion, marriage), education, and the governmental rules prescribing what business can and cannot be conducted on Shabbat. Though many Israelis do not feel much attachment to the Kotel, they are increasingly incensed at the ways in which their lives are negatively impacted by the ultra-orthodox religious-political establishment.
This summer, attention has focused on the questions of access to pluralistic prayer at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem and legislation that would enshrine all matters of conversion in the hands of the ultra-orthodox chief rabbinate. The Israeli Prime Minister walked away from a painstakingly- negotiated agreement concerning not only physical access to the Kotel, but, critically, changes in the way the entire Kotel area is managed. After 18 months of promising to implement the agreement, the government turned its back on the agreement and, in doing so, on World Jewry.
Therefore, the Union for Reform Judaism Resolves to:
· Provide leadership for a large-scale campaign to end the ultra-Orthodox monopoly in Israel;
· Commend the senior professionals of our Movement -- especially Rabbis Rick Jacobs, Gilad Kariv, Noa Sattah and Joshua Weinberg, and the remarkable Anat Hoffman – for their wise and courageous leadership;
· Acknowledge the unprecedented support we have received from across the North American Jewish community in recent weeks;
· Use this crucial moment to redouble our efforts to end the ultra-Orthodox religious monopoly in Israel, including
· Advocating directly to Israeli officials, including Israel’s Consuls General, to ensure that the Government of Israel is aware of the priority we place on these issues;
o Encouraging all Reform-affiliated missions to Israel to not only visit the Kotel, but to participate in egalitarian worship services in the upper plaza to demonstrate that we will not be silent or sequestered at the far less accessible and virtually invisible Robinson’s Arch;
o Continuing to build and strengthen the coalition relationships in North America with ARZA and our Movement partners, and with the Conservative Movement, Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the American Jewish Committee, AIPAC, ADL and dozens of others;
o Supporting the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism and our other partners to significantly expand the number of Reform synagogues and other religiously progressive institutions in Israel, to broaden their reach and to strengthen their work;
o Working directly with leading funders to provide the resources necessary for this vital work;
o Developing marketing campaigns in North America and Israel to ensure that our objectives resonate with both North American and Israeli Jews;
o Encouraging our congregations in North America to become educated about and involved in this campaign, with involvement ranging from participation in specific events to financial support for boots-on-the-ground organizations in Israel that work on these issues;
o Working with the World Union for Progressive Judaism to use the North America/ Israel partnership as a model of collaboration for Reform/Progressive communities in other countries around the world; and
o Exploring the most effective ways to ensure that our voice is heard loudly and clearly by the Israeli government, including the best approaches to North American financial support for Israel and Israeli organizations.
· Authorize appropriate funding for calendar year 2017 to implement this resolution.
From my perspective, ultimately, this is all about politics. If enough Israelis voted for political parties that respected the values of religious pluralism, then the current impasse would not be taking place.
But in the meantime, even those of us who do not hold Israeli citizenship, and so do not have the same amount of “skin in the game” can still make our voices heard so that the vision proclaimed in Psalm 122 might be realized:
א שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת, לְדָוִד:
שָׂמַחְתִּי, בְּאֹמְרִים לִי-- בֵּית יְהוָה נֵלֵךְ.
1 A Song of Ascents; of David.
I rejoiced when they said to me; 'Let us go to the house of the Eternal.'
ב עֹמְדוֹת, הָיוּ רַגְלֵינוּ- בִּשְׁעָרַיִךְ, יְרוּשָׁלִָם.
2 Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem;
ג יְרוּשָׁלִַם הַבְּנוּיָה-- כְּעִיר, שֶׁחֻבְּרָה-לָּהּ יַחְדָּו.
3 Jerusalem, built up, a city knit together;
ד שֶׁשָּׁם עָלוּ שְׁבָטִים, שִׁבְטֵי-יָהּ--עֵדוּת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל: לְהֹדוֹת, לְשֵׁם יְהוָה.
4 To which the tribes went up, the tribes of the Eternal, as a testimony to Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Eternal.
On this Shabbat Matot/ this “Shabbat of Tribes” – ancient and modern – let us all pray for the peace of Jerusalem and the well-being of all who dwell in the thriving modern State of Israel. And, really, considering the state of the world, the presence of a mechitza at the Kotel is not the worst of the challenges that face us.
(c) Rabbi David Steinberg (July 2017/ Tammuz 5777)
 Numbers 30:2
 Numbers 30:3
 A mechitza (Hebrew: מחיצה, partition or division, pl.: מחיצות, mechitzot) in Jewish Halakha is a partition, particularly one that is used to separate men and women. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechitza