This Shabbat we will be reading Parashat Mattot : Numbers 32:1-19.
The haftarah will be Jeremiah 1:1-2:3 The Haftarah of rebuke preceding Ninth of Av
Summary of Mattot
Moses speaks about vows: nedarim If a man made a vow to God, he must carry out all that he promised. But if a girl living in her father’s household made a vow to God, and her father learned of it and did not object, her vow would stand, but if her father objected on the day that he learned of it, her vow would not stand. If she married while her vow was still in force, and her husband learned of it and did not object on the day that he found out, her vow would stand. But if her husband objected on the day that he learned of it, her vow would not stand. . If a married woman made a vow and her husband learned of it and did not object, then her vow would stand. But if her husband objected on the day that he learned of it, her vow would not stand. If her husband annulled one of her vows after the day that he learned of it, he would bear her guilt. However the vow of a widow or divorced woman was binding. God then told Moses to attack the Midianites, after which he would die. At Moses’ direction, a thousand men from each tribe, with Pinchas son of Eleazar serving as priest attacked Midian and killed every man, burning the towns and taking Midianite women and children captive, and all their beasts and wealth as booty. They brought the captives and spoil to Moses who told them to kill every boy and every woman who had had sexual relations, but to spare the virgin girls. The troops were to stay outside the camp for 7 days to cleanse themselves. The plunder was to be shared between the combatants and the rest of the community. The Reubenites and the Gadites, who owned cattle, noted that the lands of Jazer and Gilead on the east side of the Jordan River suited cattle, and they approached Moses, Eleazar, and the chieftains and asked that those lands be given to them as a holding. They would build their sheepfolds and towns east of the Jordan and leave their children there, but then fight until the land was conquered and not seek a share of the land west of the Jordan. Moses assigned the Gadites, the Reubenites, and half the tribe of Manasseh lands on the east side of the Jordan.
“They said: 'If we have found favour in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession; do not bring us over the Jordan.' And Moses said to the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben: 'Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?” 32:5,6
In this sidra we see Moses make explicit the importance of collective responsibility for the people of Israel. One group cannot leave others to undertake a dangerous activity without helping them – even if they themselves do not want to enter the land that is being fought for. The people are faced with a choice between how much they should take care of their individual needs and futures, and how much they should see themselves as part of a larger enterprise, members of Am Yisrael – the people of Israel. This is a negotiation we all have to do in modern life too – and the iterations are frequently repeated. When do we sublimate our own desires for the good of the group?
There are times that we have to act – times that we cannot simply get on with our own lives and ignore the wellbeing of the people Israel, and this week is one of those times. With the passing of the boycott bill which will empower Israeli individuals, institutions or businesses targeted by boycotts initiated by fellow Israelis to seek compensation in court for damages resulting not only from boycott but even from calls to boycott, the Israeli government has taken a step we cannot simply ignore or dissociate ourselves from. This new Israeli law has created a right to private action, allowing any individual Israeli effectively to become a private law enforcement agency, and able to bring a legal case against any person or group they believe has taken part in (or even simply supported what) they construe as a boycott against Israel, against the settlements, or even any individual Israeli. The direct and even the indirect victims of a such a boycott can now sue for damages, and the bill offers them a thirty thousand shekel compensation, even when no actual financial damage is demonstrated. This bill compromises Israel’s much prized freedom of expression – just as the “Arab Spring” uprising is claiming the same democratic right. Modern and democratic society holds as truth that civil society has a right to organise peacefully, and to use the tools it has – in particular its buying power, and the freedom to speak up about passionately held beliefs in order to educate others and to further political goals. This bill takes away that right amongst Israeli nationals. How can we, outside of the borders of the State, sit in our comfortable places and just watch?
We are watching our fellow Jews journey down a path that must inevitably lead to conflict with the rest of the world as it becomes anti-democratic, arrogant, moving away from the values of righteousness that infuse Torah Judaism and and into the values of political Judaism which sees settlement of the Land as more important than either peace or human life; which forgets that we only have the Land if we take care of it and understand the leasehold nature of the relationship.
There are many things that some of us find difficult about the modern state of Israel, about the compromises with Jewish values that successive Governments have made in order to survive or to stay in power. But this bill is of a qualitatively different order. This bill says that peace organisations, human rights organisations, groups who are learning to care for each other and live with each other are now to be demonised and destroyed with lengthy legal cases. This bill says that only the hard line settlement politics are of value in the country. This bill says that the intelligent and peaceful dissent of its own population must now be unlawful, that a diversity of views is illegitimate. The distance from Talmudic discourse, which records minority views by name in order for them to be used in later revisions is now so great as to make the modern State unrecognisable as being based on either Jewish values or Jewish process. Are we now to be like the tribes of Gad and Reuben and distance ourselves from what is going on, or will we now rise up and say that as part of Am Yisrael we will not tolerate this Bill? In the famous words of Hillel, 1st century sage and teacher "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But, if I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, when?" (Avot 1:14).
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