Parshot Matot and Maasei
By Rabbi Pam Frydman
There is a very famous quote from Sefer Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes, in which it says,
To everything, there is a season,
And a time to every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die….
A time to weep, a time to laugh; [and] a time to mourn.
Right now, we are in a period called the three weeks. These three weeks begin with the 17th of Tammuz, a day of sadness and mourning when we fast from sunrise to sunset. This year, the 17th of Tammuz was observed on Sunday July 21st.
The three weeks will end with the fast of the 9th of Av, a day of even more sadness and mourning, when some of us fast all the way from next Saturday night August 10th to Sunday night August 11th. For those who are not able to fast, the 9th of Av is nevertheless a time for great mourning and sadness as we remember the destruction of the Jewish lifestyle over and over and over.
This season of the three weeks, which are bookended by the two fast days, are a period of mourning the devastation of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the Second Temple in Jerusalem along with the Babylonian Exile and the Roman Occupation, the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. And as if that were not enough, during World War II, the request by Heinrich Himmler for the Final Solution was approval by the Nazi Party on Tisha B’Av in 1941, and the implementation was approved the following January 1942.
This week, we read the double Torah portions of Matot and Maasei. In Matot, Moses taught the Israelites about the importance of keeping vows. Then God told Moses to wage war against the Midianites. Moses followed God’s instructions, the Midianites were defeated and the spoils of war were divided among the Israelites.
In the second Torah portion for this week, Maasei, the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the shore of the Jordan River is recorded like a travel log with the name of each stop listed in succession. Then God described the division of land that the Israelite tribes would later receive after they crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land.
The tragedy of this week’s Torah portions is that the war in which the Israelites defeated the Midianites was a genocide, because not only were the Midianite men killed, but Moses also ordered the killing of women and children.
We rarely read from the Book of Joshua, and when people ask me why, I often feel my shyness to explain, because the fact is that in the Book of Joshua, 31 genocides are reported as having been committed by the Israelites as they conquered the Land of Israel from the inhabitants who were living in that land when the Israelites entered the Land after their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.
There are a lot of things that can be debated about why Moses ordered the Israelites to kill Midianite women and children. The Israelites themselves had just experienced a plague during which 24,000 Israelites had died, seemingly as a consequence of the Midianites drawing the Israelites into idol worship. So, it is perhaps understandable that Moses felt that the Israelites would not be safe until the Midianite tribes were eradicated.
Perhaps it is also understandable that the Israelites went to war against the peoples who were living in the Land of Israel. God seemed to have instructed the Israelites to fight in those wars, and to take over that land. But over the centuries, as the Jewish people fell victim to genocides that put Judaism at risk, the rabbis began ringing their hangs, and eventually guided the Jewish community away from the death penalty.
According to Jewish law, even the most heinous crimes may not be punished by death and we know well that the modern State of Israel has made only one exception, which was in order to execute Adolf Eichmann for Nazi war crimes. Now that the death penalty has been reinstated in the United States at the national level, American law concerning the death penalty is in direct conflict with Jewish law, which instructs us that the death penalty should no longer be allowed in human society.
Last night, I had Shabbat dinner with David and Antonia Lavine. During dinner, Antonia implored me to speak about the vigils in support of immigrants’ rights. Our own Antonio Lavine is the Executive Director of our local chapter of the National Council for Jewish Women, and our own Linda Kurtz was recently installed as President.
On August 11th, the National Council of Jewish Women will join together with local synagogues and national Jewish organizations to hold a vigil during the last hours of the fast of Tisha B’Av on August 11th. The Jewish Community Relations Council will also participate in a vigil in San Francisco. These vigils are prayerful protests to mourn the loss of life and the suffering caused by the inhumane treatment of immigrants and refugees in the United States today.
Now I want to go back and talk about Moses, our national hero. Admiration for Moses will hopefully never go out of style. Moses was the man who took off his sandals at the burning bush because he heard a voice that said take off your shoes for you are standing on holy ground. Our national hero is a man who listened to voices, and by listening and arguing and advocating for our ancestors, he saved our people from slavery, and led our people through the wilderness to the Land of Promise.
Starting next week, we will begin reading and chanting from the Book of Devarim, Deuteronomy, during which Moses spent 36 or 37 days reminiscing and teaching our ancestors before he went up the mountain to meet his Maker at the ripe old age of 120. Between this coming week and Simchat Torah in October, the Torah does not have any stories about traveling. Instead, the Torah is full of stories and teachings that Moses shared with the Israelites while they were camped on the eastern side of the Jordan River.
According to the Torah, one of the last actions that Moses commanded was the war against the Midianites, including the killing of women and children. It is not a proud moment in Jewish history, although it certainly is a moment that may be understood as a necessary war to prevent the eradication of our people by pulling us off our religious path by drawing us toward idol worship.
I think we can all agree that worshipping the modern idols of power, prestige and greed are antithetical to wholesome Jewish values and to wholesome human values. But in Judaism, it is never enough to just know the truth. We are also called upon to actually be the truth, which we manifest here at B’nai Emunah by walking our talk of welcoming those who join us, helping the poor, saving lives through blood drives and in many other ways.
The sages of the Talmud drew our people away from senseless bloodshed by drawing us away from all bloodshed. The sages understood that a long list of don’ts will never be enough to stop war. Only a moratorium on killing and torture can stop wars. Whether or not we choose to attend the vigil in San Francisco August 9th or the vigil in Palo Alto on August 11th, or whether we make a donation to help immigrants and refugees, let us always continue in the footsteps of the sages who said no genocide even when it was advocated by Moses, our greatest national hero.
 Excerpted from Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, verses 1 to 4.
 Heinrich Himmler received the approval for the Final Solution from the Nazi Party on August 2, 1941, which was the 9th of Av. Based on other Nazi horrors that were intentionally committed on Jewish sacred days, this appears to be no accident. Several months later, on December 12, 1941, a meeting was held during which Adolf Hitler declared the Final Solution. The plans for implementation were then crafted during the Wannsee Conference in January 1942.