This week’s potion begins with the word “Matot,” the plural of “Mateh.” But it does not speak of a walking stick, it speaks of the tribes. Again we see the wonder of words, specifically the spirit words of Hebrew.
The word Mateh is rife with realizations. Within the root, we root out the words for ‘bed,’ ‘downwards,’ ‘headquarters’ and ‘tribe,’ as well as, ‘walking staff.’
What do all these blossoms of the root have in common? They all have to do with being grounded.
When we need to be comforted, when we need to find our balance, when we need to be grounded in a world that seems to be spinning out of control, the Mateh comes to balance us.
In this case, it is the tribe that we seek for balance. We all need connections. We connect with family and community and country.
But the origin of these connections is the tribe. Our tribe gives us borders and boundaries. Our tribe offers us comfort and encouragement. And within our tribe, we seek council and consolation.
In other words, we can lean on our tribe like a staff upon the trail.
Dvar Torah(a word of Torah)
There are Torah potions that lend themselves easily to modern Midrash. They leap from ancient times into the modern mold with ease. And yet, there are other potions, like this one, filled with blood and fire and force.
There are potions that point to the disparity of inequality between male and female in a male dominated society. These potions point to our similarity to the other peoples of that ancient time. They highlight the other potions, potions in which we find firmly fixed formulas for elevation. They point to potions filled with spiritual enlightenment far beyond the history in which they are ensconced. And we might just leave it at that, ignoring the hard questions brought up by this potion.
But I believe we cannot and should not gloss over the bitter potions, nor try to sugar coat them so that they go down with ease. There is a song that contains the verse, “a little bit of honey makes the medicine go down.” That does not apply to honest understanding. In this potion, we have two examples. (The second speaks to the horrors of Jihad and we will leave it for another day.)
The first is in regard to vows. A man’s vow is sacrosanct. What he says, he should do’ period. That in itself is frightening.
I remember as a child walking the hallway to my father’s (z’tl) office. Along the wall was a virtual gallery of visual renderings of biblical stories. There was one painting in particular that has remained vivid in my mind. In the background of the painting is a young girl running to meet her father. There is joy and relief in her face. If that were all there was to the depiction, it would have been a sweet, and poignant painting. And yet, in the foreground is a close up of the father’s weathered, pained and tearful face. His name was Yeftah.
In Judges 11:30-31 he makes a vow. “And Yeftah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said: ‘If Thou wilt indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, 11:31 then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, it shall be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering.”
And that is the root of his ruin. As the picture displayed so powerfully, the first thing to come from his doors of his house was his beloved daughter. That painting is the only one from the gallery that I can still see with painful clarity. The horror imbedded in the paint on canvas cries out to the harshness of this very potion. A man may never retract a vow. If our people had not grown, if our faith was not flowing, we would be left with the same harshness as those who preach and teach terror to the world.
But Torah is a flowing work, filled with interpretations that elevate our lives. The Rabbis of Talmud interpret the rules of the Neder and the Shvuah (the two types of vows mentioned in our potion). They simply state that neither Neder nor Shvuah may break with Halacha (the path of the Jew). We may not make a vow that pulls us from the path of holiness and wholeness, the way of our people. We may not vow to slaughter a human being as a sacrifice to G (or for any reason for that matter). Talmud moves to mitigate what could become tragedy.
Talmud softens severity.
But what of the inequality to women? What of a woman’s vow? According to our text, a woman is dependent upon the approval of her father or brother or husband. In other words, if a man is in the picture, the vow can be nullified or softened. Yes, this is unfair, unjust, inequitable and iniquitous. A woman’s vow should have the same weight as a man’s.
And yet, maybe it should have been the other way around. If a man makes a vow, his mother or wife or sister has the right to say: “Are you out of your mind!?!?!!?!?!?”
Maybe instead of pulling the woman to the man’s side of the Mehitzah (separation of the sexes), men should be pulled to the woman’s side. Maybe there should be some checks and balances between the male and female. When making a vow we should look within. We should explore the “In-Yo,” the “Yin and Yang” of the self. When emotions run strong, we should take a moment to sit in council with the feminine and the masculine within our soul.
Torah teaches. Even in what appears on the surface to be a reflection of ancient ignorance, there are lessons to be learned, spirit growth to be gleaned.
The First Century Rabbi Ben Bag Bag taught us, “Turn the Torah, turn it again and again, for everything you want to know is found within it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:25)
Reb Bahir Rocky Mountain Hai