The bloodthirsty retribution against the Midianites and the command to dispossess the Canaanites and wipe out their cults reflect an epoch that repulses our modern sense of decency in relationship to others. How does Parashat Mattot (and Masei for next week) fit into our Holy Torah? What could be more primitive than the countenanced system of "blood avengers" being granted permission to exact revenge from people who have not been proven guilty.
We have an obligation to look at this material in its historical context but then to ask what if anything can be extrapolated for our own lives. In Israel, (today) there is certainly an immense level of anger at Hamas. To take our Torah literally, we should have been attacking Hamas even before they started attacking us. What are we to do with this type of co-existence? Obviously none of us is inclined to reclaim the warlike and intolerant traditions of attacking the beliefs and practices of our neighbors.
One would be hard pressed to find a sane person who does not think Israel has a right to defend herself. The State of Israel uses different Jewish values as prescribed in our texts to not be the country on the offensive, unless attacked first. I will be speaking more about this at services tonight. The goal is to find a way to peace, even during these tragic times. We are obligated to try to work with our neighbors before reverting to what the Torah proscribes as revenge.
Recently the Presbyterian Church's General Assembly voted narrowly to divest itself from companies they portray as having an impact on the West Bank such as Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett Packard. While largely symbolic, it could push other denominations in that direction. This has put us in a position of wanting to have a relationship with our Presbyterian neighbors, but difficult to do so when they have made decisions to "besmirch" our people.
We are appreciative of many aspects of other faiths and I am excited that we continue to participate in many different interfaith activities and programs. However, how is it possible to read passages calling for the destruction of idolatrous cultic sites without some discomfort?
In the closing words of this week's haftarah there is a vision of return, and of universal benefit from Israel's fidelity to the covenant. When we are faithful Jews, then we can become a source of blessing to others. It is not, perhaps, a modern vision of religious coexistence, but it is important in reminding us that the particularist covenant of Israel has universalist purposes-we are here ultimately not to help ourselves, but to help other peoples attain blessings and our ultimate goal is to do God's will and achieve peace amongst all people in the world. Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "There are ways we may relate ourselves to the world. We may exploit it, we may enjoy it, or we may accept it in awe." Unfortunately, too often we have chosen the first way. Our faith requires that through our actions we choose to follow the other two pathways.
Please join me both tonight and tomorrow morning as we will continue these conversations until then, have Prime Minister Netanyahu and the valiant Israeli Defense Forces in your thoughts and prayers..
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham