You know, there are moments when you read the weekly parsha and everything clicks. You open the Torah, and the ancient wisdom and knowledge smack you right in the face with their eloquence and brilliance. Then there are weeks like this.
In this week’s parsha we read that a woman can take an oath upon herself, but that the oath is only valid provided that her father and/or her husband have no problems with it. While she is unmarried, her father has the right to object. Once she gets married, even if she had already taken an oath upon herself, her husband has the right to object and nullify the oath. Later on, we read of God’s instructing the Children of Israel to destroy the entire nation of Midian. When they return, Moshe gets angry at the leaders for sparing some of the women and children. He orders them to go back out and murder all of the male children and spare only the women who have never known a man carnally.
It’s hard to mine the wisdom and insight from passages such as these, and the temptation is to dismiss them as just something written by men of a certain time. The text is offensive and vexing, but if we are going to point to passages and stories that we love as sources of inspiration and wisdom – remarking over the eloquence and insight as something eternal – we cannot just ignore the texts that bother us.
As I sit here and write this, I am visiting my parents at the cottage they bought 36 years ago. I have been coming here since I was six years old and have never missed a summer, no matter where in the world I have lived. While the cottage has changed over the years, my visits are still exactly as I have remembered. I know every beat and moment of the days here: we will swim and hike, we will eat (and eat and eat) and laugh, and yes, since we’re a family, we will argue as well. No family trip is complete without complaints that the children are too loud, arguments about politics (even if we agree, we find a way to argue), or built-up resentments (that creep into conversations when least expected).
I love my family. We are very different, very similar people who are passionate and loving, critical and forgiving. This year we all came for a family reunion that packed 20 of us into a rather small space. You can imagine the chaos and fireworks that ensued. We are not perfect: we can be petty, we can be rude or ungrateful, and there were times when I have felt very alienated from everyone else in my family.
It’s not always comfortable, but I keep engaging. I used to engage from a place of trying to convince my family I was right about …well… everything, and if they could just see things my way, life would be a lot easier. Needless to say, I have given up that fight. Now I do my best to appreciate each of the members of my family for the lovely, flawed, wonderful people they are. I stay because I want a relationship with these people; I stay because I want to be in this family. [And I recognize that some families are more difficult, and that there are legitimate reasons to exorcise such people from one’s life, but that isn’t my case.] No, I did not choose to be born into this family, but I choose them every time I board the plane for this wonderful place.
It’s the same with the text of the Torah. I want a relationship with the tradition of Judaism, to engage with something that is greater than I. So I choose to engage with all of it – the imperfect, messy, wonderful family that has been here for 3,000 years – knowing that I can’t expect every aspect of its texts and traditions to agree with my own opinions or sensitivities.
In sum, we don’t have to accept everything that is written in Torah, nor constantly apologize for the text, nor take what is said for truth, but we do have to engage. And engaging, we have to understand that our relationship with Judaism and the Torah is not always straightforward, that our wrestling with God might end in a draw.
We sometimes have to agree to disagree. The key is to do so while engaging, and not use disagreements as an excuse to pull away.