If you were paying attention to this week’s Torah reading of Mattot-Massei, you were presumably horrified by the description of the genocide and sex slavery the Israelites inflicted on the Midianites at the command of God.
The question of the Torah’s “difficult passages” has only begun to receive attention in the past decade or so. Personally, I think there’s a lot to be said for either reciting them in an undertone or omitting them altogether.
But whether you recite it or not, it’s still right there in the Torah. How can one understand it?
Rabbi Jill Hammer discusses how to draw Torah from troubling texts in her d’var Torah for the Academy for Jewish Religion this week:
When Jews get to this parashah, we understandably tend to avoid this material. Yet there is a problem with always avoiding the most painful parts of your own story, which is that you begin to feel you are entitled to avoid them. There is too much we are avoiding, including the meltdown of our planet, the plight of refugees and victims of war and catastrophe, the perils of sex trafficking which is still rampant in our world and continues to be characterized by the most cruel and dehumanizing practices, and lots more. It is our human instinct to avoid painful things, but we need to talk about them. This parashah opens doorways to address things that feel unspeakable.
I’m not going to spoil her vort, but I recommend you read it.
Meanwhile, let’s argue about the public reading of troubling texts in the comment section.