Parashat Matot–Masei Erev Shabbat 14 July 2023 (5783)
Week of 9 -15 July 2023
Torah portion: Numbers 30 :2-36 :13 Haftarah: Isaiah 2 :4-28. 3 :4
Theme: We are pilgrims
I am writing this commentary in Santiago de Compostela. It is believed that the remains of the apostle James (Yaakov) are in a crypt in the cathedral in this city in the northwest of Spain. Throughout history, people have walked to Santiago in recognition of, or seeking the movement of God in their lives. Some made vows that if they received healing or forgiveness—or what they believed to be some other manifestation of the divine will—then they would walk a pilgrimage in recognition of that vow: words in response to, or leading to action.
Parashat Matot—the first of the two parshiyot for this week—focusses on laws concerning vows, particularly those made by women. These laws shed light on an ancient near-eastern worldview that saw women as being under the authority of a father or husband (Num. 30:2-17). Even though there are stories within the Shared Scriptures that give voice and agency to women, such as Miriam, Deborah, Ruth, and Esther, there are many instances where women are “relegated to a second-class status comparable to that of minors” (Plaut, 1110). Thus, fathers or husbands are given the power to annul the vows of their unmarried daughters and wives. And these women are not bound by the vows that they have made. In contradiction to this, widows and divorced women are bound by their vows, as is their identity in relation to their deceased or estranged husbands (30:10). There is no law for a woman who is not under the authority of her father because of her age and who has not married.
Plaut (Ibid.) notes that efforts were made in later Jewish law to address inequalities and give women “wider protection in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance.” Women still experience inequality today because of religious worldviews that are hierarchical and place men above others—though lower than the divine. These worldviews, which can be found across religious traditions, also place First Nations’ people, black people and people of colour below people who are white; using their Scriptures and their theologies to legitimise these prejudices and denying them the rights and privileges awarded to others. This is also the case with people who are LGBTQI+.
An entire tractate of the Talmud is concerned with the making of vows and their validity. This shows us that words are extremely important (Plaut, 1099). Words, especially in the form of laws, vows and oaths, shape action, define whose rights are privileged above others and can be used to exclude or include. Words can diminish or build up. This is why the work of the Rabbis and those who have followed in their footsteps is so important. This is why we must continually interpret and reinterpret our sacred texts and the numerous commentaries that have been written about them.
Rabbi Stacy K. Offner, in the Women’s Torah Commentary offers some thoughts on this. In the ancient Near East, she reminds us, important documents were chiselled into stone. This meant that a great deal of thought had to be put into what was being said. In a similar way, we must also put great thought into the words we speak, the vows and oaths we make and the consequences that may arise from their enactment.
How many words do we send out into the ether? E-mails, memos, text-messages, phone conversations, and gossip sessions all contribute to the overwhelming number of words that come from our mouths and hands. Talk is cheap and plentiful. Modern technology allows us to communicate at will with virtually instantaneous results. Artificial Intelligence even allows us to outsource our voices to technology and we are yet to see the full implications of this.
For Reflection and Discussion: Do I take seriously the power of the words that come from my mouth? How are my words inclusive and life-giving? What words in our traditions do we need to reconsider, or reform?
Bibliography – Goldstein, ed.: The Women’s Torah Commentary (Woodstock, VT, 2000); Plaut and Stein, eds., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised (URJ, 2006).
This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by
Mark David Walsh, Bunurong Country, Australia,Bat Kol Alumnus: 2001, 2002, 2004, 2013