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Holding onto humanity

This sermon was given by Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz at Sinai Synagogue.

I knew that this day would come: the day that I would have to give a sermon that I dread giving. A sermon that is uncomfortable, difficult, confrontational. And not just in a theoretical but in a very real way, through polarizing opinion and lived experience.
It would be tempting to hide from the stuff that provokes strong emotions: anger, hopeless, judgment, helplessness, revenge, nihilism, perhaps even hate. It certainly is tempting to focus on the innocuous parts of this week’s reading, or go straight to the Haftarah. Just like it is tempting to switch off the TV and the computer and to bin the newspaper. Although that would be the safe choice, it may not be the appropriate one. Sometimes we have to dive into the painful conversations. When the world around us is in turmoil, silence fails to show the moral courage that our tradition demands of us.

I came home Thursday night from teaching the Intro to Judaism programme. For a mere two hours I had been offline. In those two hours, Netanyahu decreed a ground incursion in Gaza and a Maylasian Airlines airplane departing from Amsterdam, carrying almost 300 passengers (192 being my countrymen) was shot out of the sky over Ukrainian airspace, exacerbating an international conflict. It is a cruel irony that we witness this playing out in the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha b’Av, the darkest day in the liturgical calendar where we commemorate the many calamities that have befallen our people.

Fleeing into Parashat Matot for refuge isn’t possible. By another cruel twist of liturgical fate, this week’s reading is all about disempowering women, committing genocide against the Midianites and the conquest of Canaan. This parashah is drenched in blood, in the loss of innocent life and held hostage to violent injunctions. The other ‘texts’ in our lives offer us little solace. The media has been set alight with hatred and partial accounts on both sides. Having both Muslim and Jewish friends on my Facebook has led to the bizarre scenario where my newsfeed indicates that an identical article on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been shared by both parties, followed by diametrically opposing commentary.

This is the crux of the matter: the texts in our lives should not be taken at face-value; they have to be ‘drashed’, interpreted, explained, given moral imperative. They have to be humanised. We have to dig out the shards of light from among the rubble, the pieces of a broken mirror of ourselves in which we can truly reflect on who we are and how we remain deeply connected to each other. Such shards of light and humanity exist in the parashah too.

Even though daughters and wives caught in the matrix of patriarchy lose their agency when their vows are annulled, the Torah hints at the full personhood of woman by committing the unmarried or widowed but fully empowered woman to the integrity of her words and commitments: ‘V’neder almanah u’gerusha kol asher asrah al nefshah, yakum aleyah’, ‘But the vow of a widow or divorcee, all that she has forbidden upon her own person, shall remain established upon her.’ (Num. 30:10) The operative concept here is not only her agency but also her ‘nefesh’, her humanity. This humanity is also something we encounter later in the text, despite its grim context. After the Israelites take revenge upon the Midianites for leading them into sexual temptation, they are called to utterly wipe out the population and take their spoils. Only virginal young women are to be spared. The Torah tells us:

Moses and Elazar the Priest did as the Eternal commanded Moses. The amount of booty, other than the spoil that the troops had plundered, came to 675,000 sheep, 72,000 heads of cattle, 61,000 asses and a total of 32,000 human beings, namely the women who had not had carnal relations.” Num. 31:31-35. The word used here is ‘human beings from among women’, ‘nefesh adam min ha’nashim’. Again, ‘nefesh’ comes to shine through the rubble. As gruesome as the passage is, the Torah reminds us that these Midianite women, the grave enemy of Israel, are still human beings, created in the inalienable image of God.

The third shred of evidence pointing towards a kinder subtext, a more human note, lies in the ambitions of Gad and Reuven. In a pastoral culture, livestock was both livelihood and status, reflected in the Hebrew word ‘mikneh’, sharing the root k-n-h, ‘to acquire’. It was in their best, albeit self-serving, interest to have access to the lush pastoral lands of Transjordan. They are eager to increase their wealth, as they say: “we will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children”. (Num. 32:16) Warlike, greedy, they place their material interests before human life. But Moses, spurning them on, corrects them: ‘Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flock’.

The Haftarah from Jeremiah enforces this message of life: ‘See, I appoint you this day over nations and kingdoms; to uproot and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jer. 1:10).

It is war and greed, nations and kingdoms, the structures of power so vast that we seem helpless against them that chip away at the text of our shared humanity. It is up to us to hold the space, to reach out and mend the shattered mirror, each little person and small act at a time. It is hard work, our fingers may bleed. We may offend each other. We may vehemently disagree. We may feel delegitimized in our deepest values. But we must. ‘Livnot u’litnoa’: to build and plant cities of refuge, ‘arei miklat’, of the soul, where we can cleanse off the impurities of death and the sins of hate.

Let us take care to not fuel the flames of hatred through how we ‘drash’ the texts in our lives but let’s continue listening to each other. There is so little what we can do but what we can do is important and holy work. The world stands on the ability to rise above ourselves and ascribe full humanity to the Other. May we be offered ‘acharit v’tikvah’, ‘a future and a hope’ so that peace comes speedily and in our day.

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