D’var Torah: Matot- Masei Navigating the Journey of Uncomfortable Texts
Camp directors are often confronted with difficult decisions in the summer. One of these questions is how to teach Matot-Masei, one of the more disturbing parshiot in the Torah. This week, we read about the Israelite attack on Midian. They kill the Midianite men, capture the women and children, and plunder the rest. Moses then gets angry and further commands the Israelites to kill all women of intimacy age. It is upsetting and graphic.
While I am inclined to ignore these parts of the Torah reading, I also know that there is a value in wrestling with the uncomfortable. Rabbi Adina Allen says, “Matot-Masei shows us that not only were we once slaves, but we were also vengeance seekers….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….”
So, I continued to explore the difficult. As I read on, I was struck between the connection of the Midianite story and the conversation that Moses has with the descendants of Reuben and Gad. They request to remain on the east side of the Jordan and not take part in the conquest of Canaan. Moses gets angry, as he believes they are obligated to fight alongside the rest of the Israelites to conquer the land. After some negotiation, they agree to a compromise and say, “We will first build sheepfolds for our livestock and cities for our children. We will then arm ourselves and fight with the rest of the Israelites until we have brought them to their place. Our children will reside in the fortified cities.” When I read this story in the context of the first, I understood Reuven and Gad as a group traumatized by war, not as denying their responsibility. The tragedy of the first war was still fresh and they wanted to protect and isolate their most vulnerable from its harm.
While difficult, I believe the parsha teaches more about the danger of war than the thrill of victory. Even if you win, it is not without damage. We are warned that battle comes with a price, divides communities, and takes a heavy emotional toll.
This parsha was not an “easy read,” but I was grateful to navigate through the uncomfortable and consider important questions about conflict and human relationships. The degree to which we teach the details of this story will vary according to age and ability to digest its content. Underlying its message is the idea that fighting leads to loss, even if you “win.” As we engage in the battles of life, we need to do so with intent, compassion, and the wisdom to know which ones are worth their inevitable costs. Shabbat Shalom.