Shabbat Masei: Ethical Cleansing

The parashah for this week offers a challenge to our interpretive skills and to our honesty. As we confront the first verses read in this second year of the Triennial Cycle, we read clear words which are incredibly problematic for anyone who holds up both the ideals of progressive, liberal ethics and our people’s understanding of the teachings of Judaism.

50 And the LORD spoke unto Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying: 

51 ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When ye pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 

52 then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images, and demolish all their high places. 

53 And ye shall drive out the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein; for unto you have I given the land to possess it. 

54 And ye shall inherit the land by lot according to your families–to the more ye shall give the more inheritance, and to the fewer thou shalt give the less inheritance; wheresoever the lot falleth to any man, that shall be his; according to the tribes of your fathers shall ye inherit. 

55 But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then shall those that ye let remain of them be as thorns in your eyes, and as pricks in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land wherein ye dwell. 

56 And it shall come to pass, that as I thought to do unto them, so will I do unto you.

There’s a problem here. This sounds like ethnic cleansing. The command G-d gives Moshe here seems to support the settlement movement in Israel in the violence they are known to perpetrate against the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank. Further, the last verse feels like some kind of nightmare coming true in these very days.

This does sound like ethnic cleansing. It is exactly the kind of violence practiced against our own people when the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and others invaded our homes, destroyed our Temple and our villages, and carried off most of us into slavery. There are at least two possible responses:

Remember the recent New Yorker cartoon of one man telling another laboring over a parchment scroll, “don’t worry about your attributions. It’s not like anyone is going to take this stuff literally”? A liberal modern Jew starts by asserting that the Torah is not timeless; it is, rather, a record of the struggle of the Jews to understand G-d’s word over many generations. We continue to learn, and we continue to assert that our understanding, as it becomes more compassionate and more respectful of the earth and all upon it, is a fuller expression of the same Voice that our ancestors strained to hear. This is true of many issues that were once problematic: marriage equality, women’s equality, and more.

The Jewish interpretive approach insists upon an evolving revelation; Jews do not read Torah alone. We read with the insights of Rashi, of Maimonides, of Midrash and of modern scholars, to name just a few influences upon our learning. One of the insights of the early modern period in Jewish study is in this suggestion: the words of Torah, if they are true, may be true in a way that you just weren’t expecting. Try turning them around to face yourself rather than someone else. There is a long-held belief in Jewish tradition that anyone who occupies the land in an unethical way will be swept off of it, for the Land itself is meant to be holy.

We are in the middle of a three-week period of introspection and reflection as a people: what are our deeds? where will they lead us? Is it possible that we are more like the ancient Canaanites, with their false gods and unethical behavior, than like the People of Israel that are meant to exist in thoughtful Covenant with the G-d who took us out of Egypt?

Torah maintains its status as an endless source of guidance, of insight and of knowledge, even as we struggle to understand what it is saying to us. The Land is holy, according to Torah; in our evolving understanding of G-d’s word, especially in these seven verses, all depends upon our ability to come to know that all land is holy, and that false gods are those who cause violence, against the earth and against each other. What is needed is not ethnic cleansing, but ethical cleansing. May we hear the Voice that calls us to our higher selves before it is too late.

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