Coming in from the outside – Matot-Masei 5781

Isn’t it wonderful to be inside together!

Comfortable chairs! The beautiful sanctuary! Air conditioning!

It has been a long slog. Surprisingly, much of the last year already is starting to feel like a distant memory.  It was not long ago that I was rolling out of bed on Shabbat morning to go to shul in my family room.

As life continues to return to normal – at least for those of us blessed to live here in well-vaccinated San Jose, I wonder what from the pandemic will stay with us?

This morning’s double Torah portion, Matot-Masei, concludes the Book of Numbers. To make sure we do not forget, it reviews every single stop in the wilderness at which the Israelites have camped over the previous forty years. It is important to remember everything that has transpired before the Israelites are allowed to reach their home in the Promised Land.

As the parashah begins, however, there is one final piece of action that requires attention. 

At God’s instructions, the Israelites go to war against Midian.  This is the conclusion of a long, drawn-out engagement that began back when King Balak tried to get the Prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. Now, finally, the conflict comes to an end with battle.

One thousand men from each of the twelve tribes are selected to go to war.  The Priest Pinchas joins them, equipped with the sacred vessels and the silver trumpets.

The Israelites achieve a great victory, devastating the Midianites and their towns,  slaughtering men, women, and children, and taking vast booty.

I do not want to focus on those parts of the story, however.  I would draw our attention to the return of the Israelites warriors to the community.

Moses instructs the soldiers:

You shall stay outside the camp seven days; every one among you or among your captives who has slain a person or touched a corpse shall cleanse himself on the third and seventh days.

Numbers 31:19

On the seventh day, they wash their clothes and can then reenter the camp. 

Why is there such a long and drawn-out reentry into the camp?  If I was a soldier, the last thing I would want to do after returning home from war would be to wait outside for an extra week.  I would want to return to my family as quickly as possible.

The answer has to do with holiness and purity. After so much contact with death, the soldiers are all presumed to be in a state of ritual impurity. If they return to the camp and mingle with the rest of the Israelites, they run the risk of passing along that corpse-contamination to others. The impurity could eventually spread all the way to the Tabernacle, which would then become unfit for God’s Presence.

And so, for the good of the entire nation, the 12,000 soldiers remain in quarantine outside the camp for one week, which is the length of time required to become pure again after a person has come into direct contact with a dead body.

Despite their overwhelming victory, I imagine these soldiers are still traumatized. 

What would it feel like to reenter the camp? They have gone through the trauma of war. These seven days of quarantine, of physical and spiritual cleansing, give them a chance to make a transition to normal life, to heal. Only then can they come home.

We have a sense of what that feels like. After sixteen months away, we are now back inside our sanctuary for the first time.

It has been a traumatic year for so many. Isolation, disruptions in school and work. Some of us have gotten sick. Some of us lost family and friends to Covid.

For the sake of keeping each other free from contagion, we have had to be physically isolated from one another.  For me, personally, it has been inconvenient. But I try not to forget about who has borne the brunt of this scourge. From increased rates of illness, to worse outcomes, to slower vaccination access, and increased unemployment – it is the same people who are always at greatest risk: the poor and marginalized.

Now here we are.

The Israelite soldiers returning from war partook in rituals to mark their return to the community. It is appropriate for us as well.

Birkat Shehecheyanu seems especially fitting at this moment. There are laws for when we are supposed to recite the Shehecheyanu. Basically, we recite it when we are doing something for the first time, or the first time in a long time.  Here are some traditional occasions for Shehecheyanu:

When we eat a “new fruit” which we have not eaten in at least a year. 

When we perform any mitzvah that has a fixed time and is not common, such as blowing the shofar or dwelling in the sukkah. This is why there is a shehecheyanu at the beginning of each holiday. There are those who recite shehecheyanu over a new article of clothes, but this really only applies to something special. If one buys a new house, one should recite Shehecheyanu. When we see a friend whom we have not seen in at least thirty days, we recite Shehecheyanu.

These are all traditional moments in life for reciting this prayer. What do they have in common? These are all moments of joy, whether we are talking about reaching a momentous occasion, seeing someone special to us, or performing a joyous mitzvah.

I suspect that we do not always think closely about the meaning of the words themselves when we recite it.

“Praised are You Eternal God, sovereign of the universe…”

  • Shehecheyanu – who has given us life. Simply being alive is a gift. We often forget that. 
  • V’kiy’manu – who has sustained us. This is about flourishing.  Not only do we have life, we have been blessed with the ability to flourish. The ability to do something new and exciting brings us above the level of mere living.
  • V’higianu lazman hazeh – And who has brought us to this moment. Judaism places more value on time than on space. All of our ritual mitzvot are oriented towards sanctifying time, recognizing the specialness of each moment.

Shehecheyanu, with its many opportunities for recitation, brings these three aspects of gratitude and awareness together. We acknowledge and praise God as the source of life, as the one who grants us the ability to flourish, and as the one ultimately responsible for enabling us to enjoy sacred moments.

This moment, when we are back in our sanctuary after sixteen months away, is an especially appropriate opportunity to say shehecheyanu. We have survived. While difficult, we have had opportunities to flourish. And while we have begun to enjoy life returning back to normal, these experiences have given us a new appreciation for how blessed we are in this, and every, moment. 

.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה.

Yitro: The Anti-Amalekite, Yitro 5776

The Torah can be a confusing book.  Sometimes, the confusion jumps right off the page.  Other times, it only becomes apparent when we start to pay close attention to the details.  But it is the perplexing parts that make our holy book so interesting.  In seeking explanations, we sometimes discover the most profound of God’s lessons for us.

Parashat Yitro is comprised of two major sections.  Chapter eighteen describes Moses’ reunion with his father-in-law Yitro and the establishment of a hierarchical court system.  Chapters nineteen and twenty describe the Israelites’ preparations prior to and receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

But there is a problem.  These events seem to be out of chronological order.  Is this surprising – the notion that the Torah might have been intentionally written out of order?  Nearly two thousand years ago, the Rabbis of the Talmud considered the possibility.  (BT Zevachim 116a)

The parashah begins, vayishma Yitro – “Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people…”  (Ex. 18:1)  “What was it, exactly that he heard?” the Talmud asks, adding that whatever it was, it led him to come immediately to the Israelite camp and convert.  As expected, there is a disagreement.  Rabbi Yehoshua claims that he heard about the Israelites’ victory, with God’s help, over the Amalekites, prompting him to come right away.  Rabbi Elazar Hamoda’i disagrees.  He claims that it was the news of God’s revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai that prompted Yitro’s visit.

The first rabbi holds that the story is chronological, and Yitro’s appearance is connected to the preceding battle against Amalek.  The second rabbi holds that the story is out of order, and that Yitro actually arrives some time later, although he does not explain precisely why the text appears this way.

The twelfth century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra describes the numerous inconsistencies in the Torah which leads him to the same conclusion, but he offers a reason why.

First of all, chapter eighteen describes Yitro coming to meet Moses at the Israelite encampment at the base of Mount Sinai, but the Torah does not indicate their arrival there until later, in chapter nineteen.

Two.  As part of the reunion Yitro brings burnt offerings and freewill sacrifices to God, but so far no altar has been built.  That will not happen until chapter twenty four, after the revelation at Mount Sinai.

Three.  On their second day together, Yitro observes Moses sitting in judgment of the people all day long.  They are coming to him to inquire of God and settle their disputes.  When asked, Moses describes what he is doing:  v’hoda’ti et chukei elohim v’et Torotav – “I make known the laws and teachings of God.”  (Ex. 18:16)  The only problem is, the Torah has not been given yet, so what laws and teachings exactly is Moses making known to them?

Four.  In the Book of Numbers, we again read of Yitro spending time in the Israelite camp.  There, it describes how he declines Moses’ request to travel with them and serve as their guide.  Then, he departs in “the second month of the second year after the Exodus.” (Numbers. 10:11)  It would seem that the account of Yitro’s departure in this morning’s parashah describes the same thing, meaning that it took place some time after the revelation at Mt. Sinai.

Further support for this claim appears in the Book of Deuteronomy.  Moses retells the story of the establishment of the judicial system, he describes it immediately before telling how the Israelites set out on their journey from Mt. Sinai after have encamped there for over a year.

Taking all of these inconsistencies into consideration, Ibn Ezra concludes that this morning’s Torah portion is not in chronological order.

But he does not have a problem with that.  According to Ibn Ezra, interrupting the narrative serves an intentional purpose.  At the end of last week’s Torah portion, we read of the evil perpetrated by the Amalekites.  They attacked Israel from the rear, targeting the weak stragglers.  Israel has to go to war.  Through God’s miraculous help, they are victorious.  Afterwards, God announces that God will forever be at war against Amalek.

Chronologically, the Israelites then travel from here to Mt. Sinai, where they prepare to receive God’s revelation.  But first – to us as readers – a point must be made.  The out-of-place story of Yitro makes this point.  Yitro, a Midianite Priest, is juxtaposed to the Amalekites.  Ibn Ezra explains that the Midianites and the Amalekites come from the same place.  They grow up together.  And yet, they develop radically different national characteristics.  Amalek becomes the embodiment of evil, while Midian embodies wisdom and kindness.

Internal biblical evidence supports this.  The Midianites have good relations with the Israelites, as evidenced by several stories that appear elsewhere.  In the Book of Samuel, for example, before King Saul attacks the Amalekites, he first instructs a Midianite tribe called the Kenites to evacuate the war zone because they had shown “kindness to all the Israelites when they left Egypt.”  (I Sam. 15:6)

This contrast emphasizes that not all non-Israelites are bad.  In fact some of them can be quite good.

This might seem obvious to us.  But remember, we are living in a post-Enlightenment era, in which values of humanism and universal ethics are broadly accepted.  In Ibn Ezra’s time, and in Biblical times, one could not say the same thing.  A person’s group identity was existentially important.  The notion that an individual should be valued on his or her own merits, rather than based on his her membership in a group, is a modern concept.

But there still exists in us much of the pre-modern.  How often do we paint people with broad brushstrokes, making assumptions about others based on their religion, or ethnicity, or birthplace, or where they went to school?  One need only read the paper or watch the news to find our most prominent national figures doing just that.  I suspect that if each of us examined ourselves, we would also find that we are not immune to stereotyping others.

It is significant that, immediately after reading God’s declaration of holy war against Amalek, we encounter Yitro, a non-Jewish priest who gave his daughter in marriage to our greatest prophet.  He is depicted as generous, kind, and wise.  And, he grew up side by side with the Amalekites.  This should serve as an important reminder about the need to check our anger, our suspicions, and our assumptions about others and not allow them to overwhelm us.

After all, our Torah delays the story of God’s revelation at Mt. Sinai in order to tell us about this man: Yitro.