Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4, 4:1, 2
For me, the beginning of Matot-Masei is one of the most moving passages in all the Torah. That might seem shocking at first, for on the surface it looks like so many other terribly sexist pieces of our text. Yet, a closer look can reveal a beautifully redemptive vision of reality.
Numbers chapter 30 addresses issues involving voluntary vows. We learn that if a man makes a vow, he is obligated to carry out the specifics of that vow. He is not allowed to break the pledge he chose to take upon himself. When a woman makes a vow, however, the situation is rather different. If she is young or unmarried and her father learns of her vow, and has no objection, she is obligated to keep the vow. If, however, he objects, then her vow is nullified, and we are told that God will forgive her. If she is married and her husband has no objection, then her vow stands. Yet, if her husband objects, the vow in nullified, and again, we are told, God will forgive her.
The fact that a father or a husband can nullify the vows that a woman voluntarily makes, presumably because her heart is moved to do so, is highly problematic and difficult to digest. Worse, it is juxtaposed with the freedom a man has to make and keep his own vows, regardless of what his parents or spouse may think. It feels like it is yet another example of inequality in a system that puts women at the whim of their male relatives.
That is, it would be except for the last detail in each of the verses — the detail explaining that God will forgive the woman whose father or husband kept her from keeping her vow. That suggests that whether the person who vows is male or female, God hears the vow the same way. At the same time, it would seem that God understands the social context and the fact that women were not always free to make their own choices. Therefore, God will forgive the woman who is restricted by her circumstances. We know that God took the vow seriously, or there would be no reason for God to forgive her. God hears all the vows in the same way.
Yet, if God hears the vows of all people, then why is it allowable for a father to restrict his daughter or a husband to restrict his wife?
Ultimately, Torah established a new way of life, a new civilization. It pushed us forward, reaching new heights of morality and justice, to be sure. At the same time, if it were to present a society so wholly different from the one that the people knew, it would have been nearly impossible to ensure that the first generation would pass Torah to the next. Thus, we have excerpts like this one, that recognize the status quo and, at the same time, hint at something that moves beyond what the people knew then and there.
When Torah was given, women often did not have power to choose their own paths and make their own vows. To give them that ability outright would, perhaps, have been too shocking to the societal system. Not even God could expect change to happen quite that fast. Yet, the fact that God must forgive a woman for not keeping her vow means that her vow was just as good as that of her male counterpart. God sees the vows as equal. God does not favor the choices of men over those of women.
In this way, Matot-Masei helps to redeem other passages within the text that are not as explicit in their recognition of the value of women’s choices, nor in the recognition of the difficult situations in which women find themselves. In Matot-Masei, we know that the ultimate vision, God’s vision, sees people’s intentions, hopes and dreams in much the same way, regardless of who those people are. It is other human beings that stunt each other’s options and possibilities. Let us, then, take the lesson of this week’s parashah and learn how to become more God-like, focusing our attention not on others’ outward appearance or social status, but rather, may we hear only the utterances of each person’s heart.
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin is the senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.