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Mattot-Masei 5782 - Moshe's Double Standard

July 30, 2022 - 2 Av, 5782

A previous rabbinic mentor of mine had a habit of starting meetings late or needing to reschedule at the last minute. Every time this rabbi lagged behind or changed plans, I would become so angry; how dare he disrespect my time?! After a while, I questioned why a few minutes here or there frustrated me so much and realized that a whole lot of that frustration was directed at myself. I could not imagine how someone who is supposed to be my teacher, my superior, could be just as disorganized with time as I am! Time management has always been a weakness of mine, and I have struggled over the years to figure out the right balance of accepting my flaws and becoming more conscious of the clock and calendar. With my rabbinic mentor, I set a double standard, expecting more from them than I could reasonably expect from myself.

Moshe, too, sets a double standard for the people Israel in Parashat Mattot. Just two weeks ago, at the end of Parashat Balak, Israelite men are lured by Moabite women to worship the Moabite gods instead of our own singular God. That singular God commands Moshe and the judges of Israel to kill any man who worships the Moabite god Baal Peor. When an Israelite man then brings a Midianite - not Moabite - woman into his tent, Pinhas stabs the two of them, and a plague among Israel is subdued. Now, in the aftermath of the stabbing and the plague, God tells Moshe to “wreak vengeance” on the Midianites. After Moshe instructs the Israelites to do so, they kill every male among the Midianites, leaving the women and children. Moshe is furious that all the women and children are left alive and calls for the death of all male children and all women who have had sexual relations. In calling for deaths beyond God’s explicit command, Moshe goes above and beyond the scope of what God asks. Moshe, the man whose beloved wife and father-in-law come from Midian, displays a particularly intense fury against his own family’s people.

In his commentary on the Five Books of Moses, Robert Alter explains the sort of double standard set by Moshe, answering the question of why Moshe seemingly betrays his family:

Either two conflicting traditions are present in these texts, or, if we try to conceive this as a continuous story, Moses, after the Baal Peor episode, reacts with particular fury against the Midianite women (not to speak of all the males) because he himself is married to one of them and feels impelled to demonstrate his unswerving dedication to protecting Israel from alien seduction.

Perhaps wracked by the guilt of marrying outside of the tribe, Moshe sets a double standard - with the complete destruction of the adult Midianite population, no other Israelite may interact with another Midianite who has lived long enough to know their practices. Through his violent spite, Moshe either shows the people that his family is the one holy exception, or he expects something greater from the people than he does from himself.

While no one in this room has demolished an entire tribe out of self-directed anger, we have each evaluated others’ lives with standards different from what we set for ourselves. We expect more or less of others than we expect from our own actions and achievements. In this building and others, I have heard parents both speak about their own imperfections and criticize other parents’ imperfect methods. I have heard criticism of others’ Jewish practice and theology from Jews who openly admit that their practice and theology defy halakhic norms. And I have heard people in relationships that may not have been deemed kosher a couple decades ago criticize people in different non-traditional relationships for their choices. No, criticism is not killing an entire nation, but as a community that is so intimately involved in one another’s lives, we also know the wider toll that one misdirected offense can take. 

A couple years ago, I spoke on this parashah about pausing before we unleash anger, and today’s teaching is not so different. When something irks us but does not actively hurt us, before we lash out, we must ask ourselves for the source of our discomfort. Perhaps that source comes from discomfort with our own choices or lifestyle. Perhaps it comes from a need for us to cling to our righteousness as an exception to the rule. If it does come from a place of self-defense, we take the next step and ask, is this something that I need to improve in myself? Or is this something that I can and should accept in both myself and my fellow? Of course, righteous anger is often founded in truth, and we are commanded to rebuke without holding hate in our hearts. However, before we present that rebuke to the uncomfortable, we have a whole lot of questions to ask ourselves first.

Although Moshe’s story focuses on an expectation of more from others than self, the opposite double standard can occur as well. Many of us have the tendency to expect more from ourselves than others. When we don’t know the other’s situation or abilities, we take on extra roles and responsibilities. We become angry at ourselves for our stumbling and inadequacy. That heightened expectation from self can be just as dangerous as the opposite. We, too, are human. We, too, deserve the permission from ourselves and others to be imperfect, and then, to pick up the pieces time and time again. At the end of the day, we can and should expect the same potential for growth and set-backs, for righteousness and misdeeds from ourselves and others. When we come from the Mishnaic place of “my father is no greater than your father” (Sanhedrin 4:5) - I am no greater than you - we come just a bit closer to compassionate, fair judgment of and interaction with ourselves and others. Shabbat Shalom.

Fri, December 1 2023 18 Kislev 5784