Mattot-Masei is not easily digested. The bloodthirsty retribution against the Midianites along with the command to wipe out the Canaanites reflect an epoch that repulses our modern sense of decency. Even the humane rule of the cities of refuge reflects and reinforces a primitive 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 things in their historical context but then ask how it can be extrapolated into our own lives. This week we are exposed to tevialt keilim, commonly referred to as “toiveling”. Its aegis is in our parsha (31:21-24) and later in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 75b) and was initially the procedure for purifying the booty taken from the Midianites. Toiveling operates from the assumption that the prior owners of cooking items were idolaters who may have used the cooking utensils for idolatry. Why is this still a practice today? It is a reasonable assumption that the people of other faiths are monotheistic and that the factory that produced the utensils was never in “cultic” service!
Nevertheless, consideration of this issue raises uncomfortable questions about how we are to view faith traditions that are polytheistic. Does the same level of respect and appreciation extend to faiths that worship many gods, such as Hinduism or Buddhism? See if it tells you on a spatula you bought that was “Made inChina” whether or not it came from a monotheistic or polytheistic factory.
What are we to do with this type of co-existence? None of us are inclined to reclaim the warlike and intolerant traditions of attacking the beliefs and practices of our neighbors. Indeed, we are appreciative of many aspects of their faith, and I am excited that we continue to participate in diverse interfaith activities and programs at CSI.
Returning to “toiveling,” at first blush it may seem as an anachronism until fully considered. It is said the laws telling us how to eat make eating a holy act, which renders all cooking utensils divine instruments. Even if you have no remote inclination or interest in it, you should be in a rudimentary sense familiar with the differentiation of a mikveh, for one’s body, and the keilim mikveh, the one for utensils. We see that God ordered the utensils taken in the Midianite war to be ritually purified. By extension, these laws apply to any utensils acquired from non-Jews. The subject is exhaustively covered on the Internet, if you are interested. In Israel, there are kitchen stores that have a keilim mikveh on site.
In the closing words of this week’s haftorah, there is a vision of return and of the universal benefit fromIsrael’s fidelity to the Covenant. As Jews, when we are faithful, we can become a source of blessing to others. It is not a modern vision of religious coexistence, but it is important in reminding us that the particularistic 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 to have peace amongst all people in the world. Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “There are three 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.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham