“Justice justice shall you pursue.”
“You shall care for the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
“We are all made in the image of God.”
These are the inspirational phrases of Torah my children and I wrote on our colorful poster-board signs as we prepared to spend Shabbat morning at a rally to end family separation and unjust immigration policies. Like Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously spoke of praying with his feet, and countless of our forebears who protested injustice in the name of Judaism, we, too, found strength from our sacred text as we put our prayers into action.
Torah is powerful. Its passages can give articulation to our deepest-held values and help us to shine the light of our faith onto the world. When the state of the world seems so dismal that we avoid opening the paper in the morning for fear of what headline we will find, it is beautiful and necessary to lift up the parts of our tradition that give us hope and inspiration, and affirm the righteousness of our indignation. The guidance and support to be found in our texts is vital sustenance in the struggle to build a world of justice and equality for all.
And yet … we also must acknowledge what else exists in our sacred scroll. It is not all “love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, if we are honest, some parts of Torah are outright horrifying. Parashat Matot-Masei can easily be seen as one such example of Torah from which we might want to turn away. In it we read of God’s executive order to the Israelites to obliterate the Midianites through a genocidal campaign of revenge.
The attack against the Midianites begins with the Israelites killing the men, taking captive the women and small children, plundering their beasts, livestock and all their possessions, and setting fire to all their cities and castles (Number 31:7, 9-11). This massive destruction, however, is not enough. When the troops return, Moses is incensed that they have allowed the women to live -— for it was the daughters of Midian who (in a previous parashah) had enticed the Israelites to engage in sexual immorality, unleashing a plague that led to the deaths of thousands. Therefore, Moses commands the Israelites to go back now and finish the job: all the male children and every non-virgin woman you shall kill (Numbers 31:17).
It was only a couple months ago that we sat around the Passover table recounting our own history of oppression — when Pharaoh called for the murder of every male child born to an Israelite woman. Here we are now, freed from bondage, following orders to kill not only the male children of a neighboring people, but their mothers as well.
Thank God, we rabbis are often grateful that this portion comes during the summer, when fewer people are around and there is less programming going on in our organizations. Maybe we can just sweep it under the rug and wait it out until Genesis comes back around. Yet, just as we must engage the stories of pain, violence and injustice in our world, we must also face those in our sacred texts.
The Torah we have inherited is not a nice, neat, easy-to-follow guidebook for how to live a good life. Our heroes are deeply flawed, our leaders inflict great suffering, and deciphering the takeaways of our sacred stories demands a willingness to encounter the complex and messy reality of human nature, both then and now. Rather than an instruction manual, Torah is a mirror. We gaze upon it and are forced to encounter the image that is reflected back.
Gazing into Matot-Masei shows us that not only were we were once slaves, but we were also vengeance seekers. In our world today we see the devastation caused by retribution, racism and collective punishment all around us. Perhaps if we can imagine our way into the most challenging stories of our tradition, we may find a way to navigate the more disturbing realities in our world. If we can see ourselves not only as pursuers of justice but also as the perpetrators of violence, as our ancestors were in this parashah, we may, paradoxically, find insight, guidance and inspiration for how to shift our story today toward love and justice in a lasting way.