Thinking about this week’s difficult parsha

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.

2 thoughts on “Thinking about this week’s difficult parsha

  1. Sad to be the first one to comment here.

    The challenge of dealing with all this is illustrated partially in how quiet the normally didactic and detail traditional commentators like Rashi are here. You left out the human sacrifice described as “terumah la Hashem”, distinct from the slaves and so on. What can be said?

    One of the conceits i’ve always liked about how “The Torah” is related is honesty in the form of Not Veiling What is Said. The more troubling, the more in demand of engagement, a bible text is, rather than just avoiding. It’s our opportunity to raise the problem, including the problem of G-d’s shitty language and the terrible violent morality associated with His Voice. This is part of why chazal needed to differentiate between the G-d, his will, and the bad, dumb, awful and unhelpful demands experienced in his name by the prophet honest enough to acknowledge that he’s not seeing/hearing from the true face, but instead, just the ass, the closest he can get.

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