Friday, July 22, 2011

Murdoch, Abuse, Lashes, Vows and Violence - Matot

From an Australian Jewish perspective there are three stories of interest this week. One is the unfolding drama of the Australian Rupert Murdoch and the News of the World. We have the very disturbing story about Sexual abuse at Yeshiva College in Melbourne[1] and the failure of leadership to deal with it appropriately. A third is the story of a Muslim man that was allegedly given 40 lashes by other Muslims for drinking alcohol[2].

This week Jews the portion of the Torah called, Matot. The name refers to the heads of tribes who were told the laws of vows[3]. It is unusual for the Torah to state that laws were taught to the leaders of the tribes. One scholar states that ‘if he was not afraid’ to offer a bold interpretation, he would suggest that this is because the laws only applied to the tribal princes. It is particularly important for leaders to keep their promises and maintain trust in public figures[4] and I think this can be extended to public institutions.  

The word Matot can also mean sticks or branches. Perhaps the link between the meanings is that tribes are branches coming off the one tree. In any event, I think there is a flavour of coercion or violence in vows in which a person forces themselves to do something later that they might not want to do then, but they do have the desire now.

The notion of being forced by a vow is beautifully used to explain the one of the most solemn of Jewish prayers. Kol Nidre is a prayer asking for annulment of vows and forgiveness for broken promises. It is linked to a story about Rabba Bar Bar Channa, who said her an echo crying out, “woe for me that I made a vow but have no one to annul my vow”, when he told the sages about this, they told him you are the son of a donkey. It was God crying out that he swore to exile his children and wished someone would annul this vow[5]. The Kol Nidre, is in a sense asking God to cancel his own vow that “forces” him to punish his children[6]. So we have vows as an instrument that forces even God to act harshly.

The reading also includes a command to take revenge from the Midyanites and describes the war of revenge. It raises the question, should People allowed to act violently towards others just because they think God told them to do so. The Torah’s answer in this case was yes, but I don’t think we can generalise from that to the present because that was Moses stating that God told him clearly to do this. In the case reported in Australia the perpetrators took the law into their own hands and were rightly condemned by other Muslims. It would be a case of the pot calling the kettle black for followers of the Torah to be too judgemental about the unfortunate lashing this week.

There is a lot more to learn and investigate this week. I look forward to doing so over Shabbat.

[3] Numbers 30:2
[4] Chasam Sofer, Nachshoni, Y,  (1989), Studies in the Weekly Parsha, Bamidbar, Artscroll, p. 1142,
[5] Talmud Bava Basra Chapter 5
[6] Munk, E, in his book on prayer