Numbers 30:2 – 32:42
Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
Have you ever been in a synagogue, following along in the Humash, the book containing the translation of our Torah readings, and read something you found really offensive? And perhaps you thought to yourself, “Can this really be a part of the Torah? Can we really claim this particular section as part of our sacred canon?”
As we near the end of the Book of Numbers, the third book of the Torah, we find a passage that makes us very uncomfortable. Here we read about God’s succinct instruction to Moses: “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites.” Every male was brutally killed and women and children were taken captive. The Midianite towns were violently destroyed by fire and the bounty of booty was divided.
When we come to this section of the Torah, many of us desperately wish we could skip it altogether. What do we do when we encounter reading something in the Torah that is so horrific? Can any wrongdoing of the Midianites really justify this kind of slaughter? What place does this reading have in our tradition at all? We are definitely uncomfortable hearing it read aloud and reading it ourselves in translation.
But it may surprise us that, millennia ago, the rabbis were uncomfortable with the public reading and translations of various biblical passages, too. Just a few months ago in our fixed Torah reading cycle, we read the curses from the Book of Leviticus. In some communities it is customary to chant these shocking verses in an undertone, so that we don’t notice them as much. We don’t completely avoid reading the text, but how we read it makes it clear how we feel about the reading: No one really wants to be cursed.
When we come to services, we listen to the Torah read aloud and we follow along in a written translation. But before the advent of the printing press in the 15th century, the Torah text was read from a scroll and was translated aloud line by line for the congregation. Maimonides, the great medieval sage, notes that not all passages from the Torah are uniformly translated in public. Here are some examples he gives of texts that were not translated: when Reuben brazenly slept with his father Jacob’s concubine (Genesis 35:22) and when the Israelites engaged in the egregious sin of the golden calf (Exodus 32). The rabbis were understandably concerned that public translations of these problematic sections would unnecessarily highlight and call attention to the unflattering sins of our ancestors.
The tradition is clear that we can’t skip reading sections of the Torah simply because we find them problematic. All of the Torah is a part of our tradition and skipping these sections would only rob us of the opportunity to grapple with them.
But we can take heart in knowing that for millennia the rabbis have lived with this discomfort and developed their own halachic coping mechanisms for addressing it. What would it look like if we, too, were to develop own halachic approach for dealing with Torah passages like the avenging of the Midianites and others in which the Israelites attack and kill other nations? By reading it in a hushed undertone, as we do with the curses in Leviticus, we could make our own statement or protest about the content of the text. It could be our way of distancing ourselves from the violent nature of these passages. In this way, we don’t abscond from grappling with the narrative but we can make a statement by altering how we read it aloud in our congregations.
Allowing ourselves to be uncomfortable is one of the first steps we can take in moving toward a more just world. How a nation deals with its literature can show how it deals with its own history. And we as a religious civilization have inherited a literary and theological tradition with problematic aspects. We can choose to skip or to ignore these aspects or we can transform these aspects into self-awareness and reflection. And Parashat Matot provides us with an excellent opportunity to do so.
Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.