Drash on Parashat Matot-Mas'ei (Rosh Chodesh) 2021

Drash on Parashat Matot-Mas'ei (Rosh Chodesh)  
Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky
Beit Shalom Synagogue, Adelaide, SA

Holy Wrestling

This week’s Torah portion opens with a discussion of vows. What is a vow? It’s not speaking of all those times that I borrowed pencils from classmates as a primary student and promised to return them “swear to God!” A vow is a solemn declaration of intent either to do something or to refrain from doing it. One example: “I swear by God’s name that I will abstain from alcohol for the whole month of July and will donate the money I’ve saved to tzedakah.” And another example that might have been familiar to those in biblical times, “I swear by God’s name that if the rain is abundant this year, I will bring an offering of thanksgiving at the end of the harvest.” Vows are treated with such weight in the Torah that they are included in the ten commandments: “Do not use God’s name to swear falsely.” In the Torah, words have power, and the attaching God’s name to a vow makes it that much more sacred.

Except, apparently, when it comes to vows declared by women. This week’s Torah portion makes it clear that women’s vows may be annulled by the men in their lives: “If a woman makes a vow to the Eternal One or assumes an obligation while still in her father’s household by reason of her youth, and her father learns of her vow or her self-imposed obligation and offers no objection, all her vows shall stand and every self-imposed obligation shall stand. But if her father restrains her on the day he finds out, none of her vows or self-imposed obligations shall stand; and the Eternal One will forgive her, since her father restrained her.” (Numbers 30:4-6) And the same applies with regard to a married woman and her husband: “But if her husband restrains her on the day that he learns of it, he thereby annuls her vow which was in force or the commitment to which she bound herself; and the Eternal One will forgive her.” (Numbers 30:9)

This is one of those Torah readings that leaves me feeling more than a bit out-of-sorts each year. Judaism attaches such solemnity to vows. And yet, those very same vows when made by women, no doubt with the same sense of obligation and weightiness, can be annulled by their fathers or husbands. It is baffling, distressing, and really quite infuriating!

And that’s okay. Passages such as this one serve to remind us that the Torah is both our sacred text and very much a product of its time. Apologists can tie themselves up in knots trying to explain why these verses are not offensive, but it is far simpler to accept this as part of an ancient text written by men who lived in a completely different world than us.

This passage, and others like it, inspire us to step into our God-given identity: we are Yisrael, those who wrestle with God. It might be tempting just to place the start of Numbers chapter 30 in the too-hard basket and move on, but we Jews don’t do that. We struggle with the texts that trouble us and try to find ways to transform them into holy words. We know even the rabbis considered some parts of the Torah so troubling that they believed that God had planted them there  to be explained away. So too for us! All vows are sacred and are worthy of honour. AND it is our obligation to wrestle with this text each year anew.

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