Parsha Matot-Massei by David Hartley Mark

We find here yet another example of “strapped-together” Torah portions/parshiyote, joined because this is not a leap year in the Hebrew calendar, when they would be separated, each one getting its own Shabbat. In Mattot, Israel wages war against the Midianites to punish them for tempting the people to idolatry. The Torah portion gives a vivid description of the conflict and its outcome, including the death of Balaam (pronounced Bil-AHM), our erstwhile prophet of the talking donkey, who served the Midianites as an adviser. It shows how a percentage of the war-booty was dedicated to God’s service by being granted to the kohanim/priests. What is significant is that, in spite of the enmity between Israel and Midian, Moses’s wife Tsipora (“Bird”) was a Midianite; his father-in-law, Jethro, who advised him on developing the Israelite judicial system, was a Midianite priest and magistrate—and the earlier Torah portion in Exodus wherein we receive the Ten Commandments honors and bears his name!

One wonders at this schizophrenic treatment of the Midianites—perhaps this reflects the differing traditions regarding them: in one instance, the Israelites were at peace with their Midianite neighbors; in another, they were at war, and the text reflects both opinions, without qualifying them with chronological references. (We find similar opinions regarding Muhammed’s feelings about the Jews in the Koran: some Jewish tribes were pro-Islam and helped him spread the faith, some not, and his mixed reportage about them reflects this confusion.) The Middle East has always been a place of tribal conflict, whether with sticks and stones or ballistic missiles and jet aircraft.

The most significant subject found in Massay is the concept of the ahray miklot/cities of refuge. These were specially designated, walled cities, maintained, supervised, and staffed by specially trained kohanim/priests. They were meant to be refuges for unfortunates who had committed accidental manslaughter, and who would flee there to escape the blood-vengeance of relatives of people they had inadvertently killed. It is true that they had to live there, protected by stout walls and conscientious priests, for the remainder of their lives, but it was a small price to pay to avoid death by vendetta.

Compare that to the ongoing Sunni-Shia carnage which is currently occurring in Syria, and one could well wish for cities of refuge big enough to accommodate the hundreds of refugees from that tragic conflict. We Americans can no longer be global policemen, if we ever were, and, despite the billions burgeoned in blood and treasure, Iraq and Afghanistan seem no calmer now than they did before. What road of support should we choose in Syria—bread or weapons? Is there no balm in Gilead?

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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