A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Torah Portion: Matot - Killer Torah

Just a short post - it's way too late.

But the news about the arrest of Radovan Karadzic is too good to not share. We thought we had put to its final rest the beastly indulgence in ethnic cleansing with the Shoah and Nuremburg. We were wrong, and the imperative "Never forget" has become a hollow slogan in the shadow of the late-20th and early 21st century horrors. Karadzic's arrest is a blow against wickedness and a small triumph for justice and mercy.

How troubling, then, that this comes while Jews across the world study Parshat Matot, in which the Israelites are commanded to seek revenge upon the people of Midian. Their crime? The Midianite women had tempted the Israelite men into cross-cultural coupling and idolatry. So this week, God's revenge - equated with Israel's revenge - is satisfied with the defeat of these people. The leaders of the attack are admonished by Moses because they failed to kill all of the women.

It helps not at all that traditional apologetics explain that the Midianites were truly evil, stood against hope and truth, represented all that is bad with human nature. In the middle-ages, when these interpretations initially emerged, Jews were powerless and their attempts to understand this parshah spoke to their inability to do violence to any people or polis. They could celebrate these verses or, as is reflected in the literature, be unconcerned with them.

Not now, not in the 21st century. Not in an age in which ethnic cleansing is a bloody, ongoing reality. We can only chip away at the calcified growths of Jewish history covering the light of Torah and try to find understanding in new ways.

A small bit of light: Levi Yitzchak interprets the name of the Torah portion, Matot, from the first sentence of the parshah. Matot means tribes, but he brilliantly rereads this noun as a causative form of the verb [nun-tet-hey] meaning to cause to shift, or incline. He says, "And this is the meaning of matot - for it is possible to shift the attributes of the Holy One from strict judgment to mercy."

That is, with our own acts we can turn the presence of din, with its harsh measures, into rachamim, mercy - and so bring mercy to all of God's people. May it be so.