Jews around the world divide the Torah – the first five books of the Bible – into 54 portions that are read consecutively throughout the year. This week, we will be reading from Parshat Matot, from the end of the Book of Numbers.
The word matot means tribes…and on some level, the parsha becomes obsessed with tribal identities. Time is spent in the text re-hashing an earlier conflict with one of the Israelites’ rivals, the Midianites, as the narrative informs us that God lauded the Israelites for seeking out vengeance against their Midian neighbors.
The danger with venerating Scripture is that it becomes all too easy for us to presume that all Jews believe or behave in a certain way, just because it was written in the Torah.
We – Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike…have the responsibility to stand up and say: that regardless of whatever the extremists of our respective traditions might have to say about it: that sometimes our sacred text gets it wrong. And in the Jewish case…I humbly believe that my Torah, the text that fundamentally shapes my worldview, and shaped the worldview of my ancestors’ ancestors for a thousand generations, got it wrong on this matter.
Vengeance is wrong. It is hateful. It is murderous. It is unjust. And no matter how difficult or complicated the history between Jews and Muslims has been…and more particularly the complex history between Israelis and their Arab neighbors in the Middle East…vengeance is not the answer, and cannot be the answer. There must be a davar acher – another explanation…another way forward.
In our heart of hearts, forgiveness is the only way forward.
Hannah Arendt, the Holocaust survivor and noted political theorist, wrote: “The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility – of being unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing – is the faculty of forgiving...Forgiving serves to undo the deeds of the past, whose ‘sins’ hang like Damocles’ sword over every new generation.”
There is much that we can learn from this passage, particularly if we can divest Arendt’s usage of the term ‘sins’ from the realm of morality. I believe that what Arendt is teaching us, instead, is that sins are the things that societies do to unwittingly plant the seeds of resentment and vengeance in the next generation of the ones whom they are in conflict with.
In that sense, our Israeli and Palestinian brothers and sisters have committed grievous sins over these last few weeks. For if we put aside all claims of the moral high ground: they both have made it that much more complicated for us to see the path to peace.
Even with the so-called Sword of Damocles of our collected past hanging over our heads: we have a responsibility to the future…to build a world that is rid of violence and vengeance…to build a world in which the sons of Abraham might once again co-exist together in peace.
May the friendship we so generously share with one another tonight plant seeds of a different sort – seeds of peace that will take root, grow, and prosper – bimheirah v’yameimu – speedily, that we might live to know it in our own day, and let us say together – Amein.