Parashat Matot/Masei – Erev Shabbat 9 July 2021
Week of 4-10 July 2021
Torah portion : Num 30 :3-36 :13 Haftarah: Isaiah 1 :1-27
Theme: Lamenting the Fate of Women
We have this week a combined two short portions called Matot-Masei. These contain the laws regarding the annulment of vows; the war waged on Midian and the allotment of spoils; land allocations to Reuben and Gad (and half of Manasseh’s tribe) outside the boundaries of the Promised Land; description of the boundaries of the Promised Land and designation of cities of refuge; and the continuation of the case of the daughters of Zelophehad. This parasha gives us a window into ancient legislations and thoughts. I promised myself that whenever women are mentioned I would choose to elaborate on the verses. There are three women-related items in the parasha: one would be regarding the annulment of vows; women and children being taken as part of the spoils of war against the Midianites; and the case of the daughters of Zelophehad.
The society where these legislations were written from was patriarchal. Thus, women are under the authority of the father or the husband. They could annul the vows made by a woman, except for someone who is a widow. The vows, in the Scriptures, are taken seriously. One that comes to mind prominently was Jephthah’s vow in the Book of Judges 11-12. He made a vow that “whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:31)
After he returned triumphant from the battle, his only child, his daughter, met and welcomed him. The daughter became a participant in the vow itself, even if she did not make it in the first place. No one could annul Jephthah’s vow. As a man who made a vow, it was binding for him. It is interesting to note that Jephthah’s daughter could not be categorized as a victim, rather, a participant. She gave her consent in the fulfillment of the vow, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.” (Judges 11:36) Then, she asks for a grace period. The story ended by narrating a custom that arose out of this incident with the daughters of Israel lamenting the daughter of Jephthah. In our modern era, we make a value judgment in looking at the case of Jephthah’s vow and his daughter’s death as well as the war against the Midianites, we lament the suffering of women and children because of war.
The other item that I wish to elaborate on is the case of the daughters of Zelophehad. We hear previously their legal plea and they were heard by the assembly of Israel which changed the laws of inheritance. They could now inherit the land assigned to Zelophehad. However, there was a rebuttal voiced by the members of the tribe of Joseph. Should the daughters of Zelophehad marry men from another tribe, the tribe would lose their landholdings. So, there was an amendment to the law that women who are inheritors could only marry men within the tribe to maintain the tribe’s portion. The daughters of Zelophehad would have probably agreed to this arrangement due to their loyalty to their father. This limited their choices but it seems they agreed to the demand. Whenever women stand, side by side, there is hope for emancipation.
For Reflection and Discussion: How are women’s voices and choices over their bodies limited by our society? How might we address this situation? You might wish to listen to A New Day Dawns by Miriam Therese Winter. Bibliography: McKenzie, J.L. Dictionary of the Bible (New York: 1965)
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Sr. Petite Lao RNDM, Canada and Philippines, Bat Kol Alumna 2010. 2014, 2019