Sermon for Matot Maasei – From Destruction to Better Days – July 29, 2022

What do the war with Midian and the upcoming Jewish day of commemorating national calamities – Tisha B’Av have in common?  Perhaps unlikely bedfellows.  Provost of Hebrew Union College Rabbinical School and my former Bible teacher, Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss would say that we are doing a disservice to all Jews who turn to Torah for guidance by omitting troubling tales – as this week’s Torah reading.  Reform Jews who tend to opt out of these tales because they are obsolete, too cruel to reflect Jewish values then and now, or induce more shame than pride in our spiritual inheritance.  I take Rabbi Weiss to heart, especially since we recite the blessing each morning, also in our prayerbook, Mishkan Tefilah: Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah – Who has commanded us to engage in the study of Torah.  This week’s tale may have caused all of us to shrink into disbelief, but nevertheless, has everything to do with today’s reality.  I wonder if our discomfort, even anxiety, over the unleashed offense of the Israelites over the Midianites and its consequences can teach us something about being human in our day.

How can we approach any troubling text in the Bible, and there are many?  Rabbi Aryeh Cohen teaches that the rabbinic sage, Resh Lakish, 2000 years ago asks about such a distasteful description: “Would a holy mouth say something like this?”  Rabbi Cohen answers in 2022:  If this story were found in any other text, it would bother me to the extent that it reflected a certain attitude that was abhorrent.  Yet, once the moral judgment is made, and the political investments deconstructed, I would move on.  I had then fulfilled my obligation as teacher.  This, however, is not the case when I confront a text that is part of the sacred core of my tradition.  Consequently, Rabbi Cohen offers ways to read, confront, and even integrate troubling texts.  You may or may not agree – Here they are:

Silence first.  Allow a text to wash over us, in all its troubling aspects, without apologetics or even the distancing that comes with the phrase “in the culture in which the rabbis live” which we can justify as either scholarly or naïve.

Judge according to the ethical standard of the text is a second option.  We are meant to question whether or not the text is an aberration from God’s own ethical standards.  For example, in Genesis when Abraham pleads to God to act justly and save the corrupt cities of Sodom and Gomorrah even if there are only 10 righteous individuals left there, he cries out to God: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” Did God live up to God’s promise of justice always tempered with mercy?  Rabbi Cohen emphatically says: “No!”

A third way of reading a troubling text relies on the reader.  We get to decide if the text informs our practice or not.  We take responsibility for these narratives, meaning that we categorically reject unethical biblical behaviors and the laws that may have come out of them and we only accept the narratives and laws that fit our ethical standards.

Now about the war with Midian.  On one hand, it reads like a brutal and offensive, rather than defensive war, the latter kind of war justified because of repeated episodes of Jewish victimization.  God may have God’s eye on the prize, the Promised Land, but does the means here justify the ends?  Our Jewish sensibility of morality, especially in face of fear of the enemy and the feeling of utter powerlessness produced among the later rabbis of the Talmud tohar haneshek, translated as “the purity of engaging in weaponry” – that is to say, a kind of guide to behavior of soldiers in war with restrictions on how we fight that are meant to keep us ethical and compassionate humans.

The Torah works to mitigate the dehumanizing aspects of warfare by prescribing constraints on the behavior of combatants. The principles of Tohar Haneshek which are stated in the Israel Defense Forces ‘ official doctrine of ethics include:

  1. Preventing the misuse of weapons
  2. Using minimum force against combatants
  3. Avoiding casualties to civilians
  4. Caring appropriately for prisoners
  5. Resisting dehumanization of enemy citizens
  6. And equalizing the burden of military service on the entire population

In truth, we are not here to judge any army or perpetrator, whether biblical or contemporary.  Perhaps this code of purity of arms was crafted because the war against Midian, among others in the Bible, was an aberration in the sacred text and needed to be “righted.”  Even 3000 years later, the aberration of indiscriminate wholesale killing continues in every war, offensive or defensive, and surely in every act of terrorism.

To properly mourn the human losses, and the losses of morality and compassion, we may consider reclaiming, from a Reform perspective, the holiday of Tisha B’av, the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, which this year begins at sunset on August 6, and historically has been all but ignored by Reform Jews, and not just because it falls in the middle of the summer.  This fast day of communal morning for the destruction of the First and Second Temples and many other travesties against Jews throughout history, has all but lost its meaning for those who are not interested in resurrecting the Holy Temple or who are strengthened in their Judaism without relying on an outside danger to unite them. Moreover, we Jews have thrived in the Diaspora, having spread ourselves and flourished in so many communities and countries over the past 2,000 years.

Another reason for commemorating Tisha B’av emerges when we personalize losses:  Walking in the shoes of our ancestors living in the land of Israel all those years ago when the skies turned black and their future burned to the ground. The loss of a home and a sense of security. Families forced to leave a familiar place; a place where memories had been made. A child birthed or buried. A baby’s first step. First love and a kiss, sealed under the shade of an olive tree. Hopes and secrets suspended. A future never to be had. A belief in goodness and innocence consumed in the flames.  Isn’t it the same in the Ukraine, and every other war zone in 2022?

Over time, the meaning of what has happened to Jews takes on new and different import. New generations remake meaning from earlier moments in time, as did the rabbis of the Talmud after the destruction of the Holy Temple and the end of priestly sacrifices, as did the exiled Jews from Spain who brought their talents and knowledge to the New World, as did Russian Jews who escaped the pogroms and made their way to the Goldene Medina, as did the Zionist pioneers who settled the land of Israel and founded the state, as do American Jews today who engage in ways to mitigate the acts of anti-Semitism through activism and advocacy for a more equitable and respectful civil society.

So maybe the traditional Tisha B’Av customs of reading the Book of Lamentations and the 24-hour fasting is meant to offer us words and rituals not just for mourning, but for reflection, for countering dark and distasteful texts, for confronting today’s negative media images, for reminding us, above all, that we have survived, that we can recreate ourselves anew, moving beyond our vulnerabilities, to rise above our fears and our losses in order to write a story for the future where all people abide by tohar haneshek – the purity of arms.  Even God is rooting for us as we read in Lamentations chapter 3, verse 55: “I called out your name, God, from the pits; You heard my voice.  Listen to my sigh and my cry; You came to me on the day that I called out to you and You said:  Do not fear.”  This year, may the 9th of Av both renew our faith in our survival and our thriving, and also remind us not to squander, but rather to save lives.  Shabbat shalom!