During the four weeks that commemorate the destructions of Jerusalem and of the Temples, from Tammuz 17 to Av 9, men used to wear the tefillin shel rosh (the phylacteries of the head) in order to think with more penetration and insights about the repeatedly historical events that led to the destruction of the City of Peaces- Yerushalaim and the Holy Temples - Batey HaMikdash. We saw how the tefillin were the first mitzvah to be given to the Jewish people by the time of the Exodus from the land of slavery, the country that first accepted the children of Jacob for their blessings and reduced them to some sort of acceptable and even satisfactory bondage when the days of Joseph escaped from their memory.
The tefillin thus reminded us that God is close to our heart and calls us to implement good deeds; these are the tefillin shel yad (of the hand/arm), usually the left arm that is close to the heart. The tefillin shel rosh, put like a diadem on the forehead show that we tend to move according to God's will and project. This is not so obvious in daily life. Then, it may be interesting to consider the tefillin as a brain-thinking instrument. When the ancestors came out of Egypt, the Lord did know that they would be tempted to return to their country of slavery. The Israelites did regret their daily bread there - hard work, not very humane, but still providing security of a binding and imposed employment. It is far better than wandering in the Sinai, eating quails or tamarisk rare species of dew that was the manna.
This year, we pass through the summer months of Tammuz and Av, appealing times of peace for Eretz Israel as the neighboring countries, also expecting a shalom tziburi (a societal time of calm), within the Israeli society and its numerous components. But the Jews are aware that this summer period has repeatedly seen months of despair, destruction, hunger, deportation, and killing. Indeed, why destruction and fights, murders and ruins quiver permanently like drums and hammers attacking life and pulse the humans to annihilation? From Tammuz 17 to the Ninth of Av, the Jews should be more conscious of their own historical destruction as a consequence of their/our lack of faithfulness or righteousness in God's choice and proposed actions. The time of te'uvah (abomination) is so strange, bizarre: we are called to ‘peru, revu, mil'u et ha'aretz’ - to be fertile, multiply, conquer/achieve the earth (the world, the universe in reality) as a developing living body (Bereishit 1:28). All the Prophets, in particular Jeremiah who saw the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation to Babylon, insist on this self-destroying "abomination" that recurrently leads the Jewish people as all the Nations to idolatry and inconstancy.
The Jewish community and, subsequently, the Israelis have gone through so many tortures and persecutions and are scarcely recognized by the Nations of the world. Thus, they would not utterly, openly accept to take the yoke of this “abomination” that is still at the heart of our relationship to God and how He responds to us. I speak in terms of the Jewish traditions, because it is evident that any explanation provided from outside of this coherence makes no sense for the Jews.
The parshat hashavua or reading portion of this week is Matot = Moses spoke to the rashey hamatot, the heads of the tribes (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and is extended by a second portion Mase’ei = these are the mase’ei, the marches of the Israelites from out of the land of Egypt (Midbar 33:1-36:13).
Curiously, it is quite usual to say that Moses gave the laws governing the oaths and vows (nedarim, isarim). This is not exactly the case. Moses speaks to the heads of the tribe – rashey hamatot, which means something specific. The commandment to “leave father and mother” (Gen. 2:24a) basically consists in being not alone. It mainly implies to have a family, a tribe in view to fight idolatry. Midrash Yelamdeinu includes a “mate’ - rod” who is found throughout the whole history of Israel. It is connected to “mitah – bed, family, descent” rooted in “nata/nata’ = to lay hands, plant”. As Moses could provide water with his tick, the mate’ can be “kol mate’-lechem shavar = God destroyed every staff of bread” (Tehillim 105:16). Thus, as stated in the midrash, this rod symbolizes “the bread of life”, the combat between idolatry and the eventuality to die and not surrender to idol worshiping. As we arrive at the end of the reading of the Book of Numbers/Midbar, we can mention how Jacob crossed the Jordan River with this rod, Moses worked miracles in front of Pharaoh (Ex. 4:3; 7:10). David slew Goliath with this mate’/rod (1 Samuel 17:40) and the rabbinic tradition said it became his scepter kept in the Temple as the sign of his kingship. Different words can be used in Hebrew to refer to the “tribes: mishpachot/families; shivtei Israel/tribes of Israel”. In this key reading of the week, the Tanakh (Old Testament) sums up the whole of the Hebrew destiny: born to fight idols, kin connections that shall develop in God’s Kingship over the universe and the Divine Presence in the Temples. This lines with our commemorating the four weeks that led to the destruction of this miraculous structure because of acts of abominations (te’uvah) committed by the Israelites.
It should be noted that the reading portion does not determine the meaning of vows and oaths. They are of extreme importance in the spiritual life of each Jew and the Jewish communities. Some rabbis link these nedarim (vows) included in the parashah “Matot”, read in summer during the four weeks of reflection about destructions, to the “Kol Nidrey – all the vows and oaths” pronounced (in Aramaic) in the 8th century in the Babylonian academy of Sura and in Europe since the 12th century at the beginning of the Day of Atonement for the annulment of forced vows. There is an emotional impact connected with this text, but the rabbis have always been rather reluctant to such a prayer considering that Jews are free from any forced commitments imposed by non-Jews.
On the other hand, the reading portion underscores that men (fathers and husbands) can release their wives’ and daughters’ vows and declare them non valid. Well, Women’s Lib definitely protested…but maybe things are not so simple. In the previous reading portion “Pinchas”, we saw how sexual intercourse collectively accomplished as an act of idolatry with pagan women, led the priest Pinchas to outrageously make use of his zeal against idolatry.
God killed the Israelites with a violent plague. In this weekly portion, men seem to regulate the spiritual vows of women. Is it not rather that they first have to respect their own vows and not fall into idol worshiping commitments? The slaughter of the Madianites, led by Moses and the priest Eleazar with the participation of 1,000 males of each tribe (matot) was accompanied by some special promises. Reuben and Gad should receive the land along the Jordan… negotiations, gentle-tribe agreements… The slaughter of the Madianites, in which Balaam perished, exterminated all their males while their women and children survived. “Moses said: “You have spared every female… that are the very ones who induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord…slay also every male among the children and every woman who has known a man carnally” (Numbers 31:15-17 - Parshat Pinchas).
This slaughter includes all the parameters of human hatred and human difference. It requires a lot of insightful reflections and in-depth studies to consider this text as showing faith in God. Thus, as they were en route to cross the Jordan and enter Eretz Canaan, it would be normal to question how such murders can anyhow participate in the sanctifying action of praising the name of the Lord. Are life and death so parallel that it does not matter whether humans give life or kill? Destroy or build? ‘Even when they say, “As the Lord lives / chai HaShem”, they lie and their swearing is false’ (Jeremiah 5:2). In the prophetic reading (haftarah), the same Prophet echoes Moses’ requirement: “Do not defile the land which you will inhabit” (Bemidbar 35:34) by these words: “You entered and defiled My land and made my heritage my abomination” (Jeremiah 2:7). Indeed, the real problem is not to be in the Holy Land or to make it holy by our forces. We cannot, any of us – make it holy. Eretz Israel is sanctified by the development and the living respectful compliance with God’s birthing Mitzvot (good deeds) that make this land a special place where the Holy One dwells and reveals His Presence to all the Nations (Tehillim 87:5).
Say, it is the same as when we plant trees and have beautiful gardens, with source waters and fertile soils. Purity of heart can go beyond the tragedies of any destruction. It takes time, a lot of time, but time has no measure for who loves without destroying. The four weeks of “abomination” should, at the present, be turned into a thoughtful and wise reflection about construction. Israel is born to construct and not to obstruct, in particular herself, which has often been a huge temptation. Judaism has to accept elements that were or are still very hostile, just as the others are entitled to consider Judaism as possibly being negative towards them.
This week, the Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates the Apostles, Jesus chosen disciples who were in despair after his death (Luke 24:13-35, the unfaithful disciples on the road at Emmaus) and reminds Peter and Paul of Tarsus. Then, there will be the various feasts of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Again, it deals with a generating process of construction. How come we are hypnotized by exclusion? The Jews have the birkat haminim/malshinim – blessing against the heretics. The Christians can be self-convinced that they replace Judaism. Moreover, in these days of troubles and identity searching, Rome just “revamped” her determination: “The only Church is the Catholic Church that recognizes the primacy of the Pope (the bishop of Rome)”.
There is more: the Pope of Rome authorizes the use of the traditional mass book in Latin practiced until 1962. The reactions are classical. Are the Jews “veiled” (blind) again on Good Friday? Interestingly, we hardly can pass over the 11th century when two envoys came to Constantinople and excommunicated the Oriental Patriarch. Times of violence and carnality, with prostitutes put by force on the thrones of the patriarchs of Constantinople and later Jerusalem. Metropolitan Cyril of Smolensk, Moscow Patriarchate, made a wise statement today: “At least, we know what they (the Catholics) think of themselves and who they think they are. Nothing is new, but at least it is said and it makes things clear”.
We experience in this State a unique situation of permanent renewal. The four weeks of Tammuz-Av, repeated creeds and definitions that show the limits of how and where God is acting should enable us be less shy and have more courage to meet other human beings.
We've lived through such devastating destructions that it is just the right minute to share, even for only a few seconds, the joy of being together on this soil sanctified by God and humans.