As the Jewish people were about to enter the Promised Land after forty years in the desert, reality hit them. For 40 years, they had been protected from the hardships of life. They were sustained and protected by the Almighty. They didn’t have to provide for their physical needs or deal with economic, social, political or any structural issues that confront a nation. They lived in a cloud – perhaps quite literally.
They learnt the laws directly from Moses, the greatest teacher and prophet. He also administered justice while his brother’s descendants took care of the ritual and spiritual life of the people. All we had to do was listen and learn.
But that was about to change.
This week’s double portion, Mattot-Masei, are the last parshiot in the Book of Bamidbar and, according to some, the last parshiot dictated to Moses on Sinai. All that is left is Moses’ final speech – the Book of Devarim – and then Joshua will take us into the Land.
So what are the last things we learn?
We learn that there is a process of annulment for vows. Taking a vow is serious, so an escape-path is required.
We learn that entering the Promised Land is not going to be “on eagles’ wings”. We will have to fight our way in. We will have to kill and our hands will be dirty.
We learn that some of the tribes want to settle on the other side of the River Jordan, separating themselves from the majority. They will be permitted to do so, providing they help in the battle for the land and take a pledge of loyalty to the law of Moses.
We read about the allocation of the land to the different tribes.
We learn that the daughters of Zelophchad, who achieved such a victory for women’s property rights only last week, are going to have to cede their rights to marry outside their tribe if they want to take full advantage of those rights.
We learn about Cities of Refuge. We were given the principle much earlier, in the Book of Shemot, but now we have details. There will be many cases where one person kills another and yet we cannot impose the death penalty. The law has to have provision for uncertainty and human error.
What is the common theme that links these apparent unconnected lessons?
Compromise; the need for a concession to reality; the recognition that unless you are in the desert and miraculously protected, you must live with imperfection.
Humans make vows that they cannot keep. Even if our claim to the Land is just and Divinely ordained, war, with all its unpleasantness, will be necessary. Not everyone pulls their weight equally and has the same level of commitment, yet they are still part of our people. Not everyone has the same amount or same quality of material wealth. Absolute justice is something only on the Divine realm; on the human level, there must be concessions.
And what is the common thread between the opening of the double parsha and the end?
The Torah reading opens and closes with laws that differentiate between the standing of men and of women.
When it comes to vows, a woman’s vow may be annulled by a single male in authority – her father or her husband – without her initiating the annulment; a man must initiate the annulment and go to a formal hearing. When it comes to property, if a woman wants to enforce her inheritance rights, she has to cede other freedoms – specifically, the freedom to choose whom she marries.
When it comes to compromise, the Torah demands more of women than of men. They have fewer obligations but they have less freedom. There is no pretense at equality. Women who are learned in both Torah and secular studies and choose to bind themselves to Torah but also live in the modern world, live with the dissonance.
If the message that concludes the Book of Bamidbar is that real life is imperfect and requires compromise, it is particularly pertinent for women. Women experience the need for compromise more and women know how to apply it more. It is true in the family, where mothers are usually the peace-makers, and women have shown themselves to be able to put their peace-making skills into practice as they show flexibility and openness to others in politics and diplomacy. The women of Northern Ireland and the women of Liberia have proven themselves to be the forces for compromise. If the women in this part of the world were included in the negotiations, perhaps they would be able to use their skills here, too.
I recently had the privilege of participating in an important discussion, filmed to be shared at the United Nations’ gathering celebrating the twentieth anniversary of UN Resolution 1325. It highlights how much we lose by not including women in the decisions that most affect our security. It would be nice if peace-making with our enemies was not needed. It is.
The Torah teaches us, as we are on the verge of entering the Promised Land, that we should not expect perfect justice or an easy process of settlement. We have to accept that certain ideals cannot be applied in real life. Life is a compromise and learning how to turn that to our advantage is the challenge.