It’s complex being Jewish. There are so many varieties of Judaism; so many different ways of living a Jewish life. So, do Jews today need to have a complex – or, is complexity, perhaps, our greatest gift?
There is nothing new about Jewish complexity. The double Torah portion for this week, Mattot-Mass’ei, concludes the Book of Numbers – B’midbar – with a clear presentation of how impossible it is to make monolithic declarations about Jewish existence. As its very different English and Hebrew names suggest, Numbers-B’midbar is a fascinating book that embraces two contradictory strands – order and disorder: the organisation of the camp in the desert, including the ordering of the tribes and their duties; and the disruption caused by rebellion after rebellion; human chaos reflecting the wilderness – midbar – in which the people find themselves.
Mattot-Mass’ei is not a particularly inspiring conclusion to the struggles and drama narrated in earlier portions of the book. It is, without doubt, a less riveting read. Nevertheless, it does its job of concluding the book rather well. In fact, originally, the final book of the Torah – the book of Deuteronomy being a later addition – Mattot-Mass’ei does more than conclude the Book of Numbers-B’midbar, it also completes the entire Exodus and wilderness narratives. As we read in the final verse:
These are the commandments and ordinances, which the Eternal One commanded by the hand of Moses to the Israelites, in the plains of Moab, by the Jordan at Jericho.
The Israelites encamped on the eastern side of the River Jordan: waiting for the moment when they will begin a new odyssey and enter the land on the other side.
That’s how the great story of the formation of the Jewish people ends – on the brink of new possibilities. But before the denouement, Mattot-Mass’ei presents us with a complex picture. A summary of the contents conveys the complexity:
Mattot begins with the theme of individuals, individual men and women, taking upon themselves special vows to the Eternal One (Num. Ch. 30). It moves on to a grisly war between the Israelites and the Midianites – and the accounting of the spoil and the prey (Ch. 31). The next theme concerns the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half tribe of Manasseh and their desire to settle on the eastern side of the Jordan (Ch. 32). Mass’ei opens with a summary of ‘the journeys of the Israelites’ – massei v’ney Yisrael – in the wilderness (Ch. 33). It goes on to delineate the borders of the land of Canaan and the way in which the land will be divided up between the tribes (Ch. 34), before moving on to deal with the cities assigned to the Levites, the cities of refuge set aside for those who kill another person unintentionally, and the laws regarding the fate of murderers (Ch. 35). Finally, Massei concludes by returning to the case of a particular family within the tribe of Manasseh: the five daughters of Tz’lophchad, whom we first meet in the preceding portion, Pin’chas (Numbers 27), whose father died without a male heir, and their claim to inherit his estate (Ch.36).
So what are we to make of this diverse array of topics? On the one hand, the contents of Mattot-Mass’ei do no more than reflect the preoccupations of our ancestors and the particular circumstances of an ancient people in formation and transition. On the other hand, I think that we find here all the ingredients of the complex nature of Jewish existence and peoplehood to this day – a multifaceted response to the question: So, who/what is ‘the Jewish people’?
A collectivity composed, ultimately, of individuals: individual men and women, making their own choices and commitments in their own ways (Num. 30).
A singular people: defining our identity in relation to, and sometimes, in opposition to others (Ch. 31).
A collection of ‘tribes’: with different inheritances, geographies, and allegiances (Ch. 32).
A collection of families: with particular circumstances and needs (Ch. 36).
A wandering people: forever on a journey, ‘from Egypt until now’ (Leo Baeck) (Ch. 33-34).
A male-defined people: preoccupied with rules and regulations; with creating and maintaining social order (Ch. 35).
A motley crew of challengers and boundary-breakers: individuals, women, men, families and tribes, who question the rules and assert their interests (Chs. 32 & 36).
The Jewish people today: a continuing story of complexity. One people, still, and yet heterogeneous: embracing individuals, men, women, families, tribes and myriad constituencies – progressive, liberal, reform, traditional, orthodox and ultra-orthodox, cultural, secular, ethnic, political (of every hew) – in Israel and the diaspora; forever struggling and striving; grappling with the legacies of the past, the needs of the present, and the challenge of creating the future.