Coping with Complexity

Awareness of the wholeness in the Torah opens our eyes to the wholeness of the world.


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The child in me wants to hide Parashat Mattot and Parashat Masei in a dusty attic somewhere; so many of their words are disillusioning, disturbing, and embarrassing. Parashat Mattot begins with sexism: all men must keep their promises, yet women’s promises may be nullified by disapproving husbands and fathers (Numbers 30). It continues with genocide: in a spirit of revenge, thousands of Israelites invade Midian and kill every man (Numbers 31:7). When they return with captured women, children, and booty, Moses is angry because his soldiers did not do enough. He commands them to kill every non-virgin female and every male child among the captives (Numbers 31:15-18).

This massacre is especially bloodcurdling for those who remember that Moses lived in Midian for a period of his life and that his wife Tziporah and father-in-law Yitro are Midianites. Later, Parashat Masei foreshadows a horrific mission of ethnic cleansing in Canaan: God commands the People of Israel, “You shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land…And if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow to remain shall be stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides” (Numbers 33:52-55).AJWS Logo

How can we meaningfully engage with such indigestible texts that blatantly contradict our contemporary notions of justice? How do we continue to embrace the Torah and proclaim that “all her paths are shalom“? (Proverbs 3:17)

Wholeness in the Torah

Many people choose to evade, rather than to connect intimately with these difficult issues. Some attempt to “purify” problematic passages through creative interpretations and apologetics. Midrash, for example, is a wellspring of such commentaries. Others ignore the problematic texts and focus exclusively on passages that validate their own personal values. Although these two methods sometimes lead to profound commentaries, they ultimately limit the depth of our engagement with Torah. Whether we justify its faults or we fail to behold its wholeness, we, and Torah, are fragmented.

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Sam Berrin Shonkoff is currently the Jewish student life coordinator at Stanford Hillel. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Brown University and has also studied in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, Pardes Institute and The Conservative Yeshiva.

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