This Sabbath we announce the coming of Av, the month about which the Mishna teaches: “When Av begins, diminish joy.” Given the sorry litany of events that befell the Jewish people during this month, it’s no wonder that the Mishna counsels against rejoicing. The Mishna lists five tragic events that took place on the 9th of Av: The decree was promulgated against our ancestors in the wilderness that, for their lack of faith, only their children, but not they themselves, would enter the Holy Land. The First and Second Temples were destroyed. Betar, the last stronghold of the Bar Kochba rebellion, was captured. And, the final blow recorded in the Mishna: The Romans plowed over the city of Jerusalem. Other sad events have been added to this list over the centuries, and so the month of Av has given rise to the view that Jewish history is a vale of tears.
This Sabbath we have a double portion for our Torah reading, Mattot and Massei. In the former we read the dismaying details of the Israelites’ campaign against their Midianite neighbors. At God’s command they set out to “wreak the Lord’s vengeance” for the sin of the Midianite women’s seduction of Israelite men. Twelve thousand strong — a thousand from each tribe — the Israelites slew every Midianite male, burnt their towns, despoiled their property and took the Midianite women and children captive. All were killed except — in the text’s body count — 32,000 “women who had not had carnal relations.”
The first of the Torah readings, Mattot, ends with the story of how the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Menasseh became landholders east of the Jordan. It was prime grazing territory, and they coveted it. In exchange for sending “shock-troops” (so in the Jewish Publication Society translation) across the Jordan to aid their brethren in the conquest of the Holy Land, they were permitted to remain in trans-Jordan. By negotiating a swap of land for military service, they gained sovereignty over the territories they desired.
The second portion of this week’s double-header, Massei, recounts the travels of the Israelite tribes from the time of the Exodus until the conquest. Having brought out the map to survey Israelite wanderings in the wilderness, the Torah then proceeds to lay out the land of the people Israel “that shall fall to you as your portion, the land of Canaan with its various borders.” There is no mention of a fence.
Instructions are given for land and 48 towns to be set aside for the Levites. Among these towns are to be six cities of refuge, so that the “unintentional manslayer” may flee there to avoid the “blood avenger.” In cases of blood feuds, the “blood avenger shall put the murderer to death upon encounter.” The whole point of the cities of refuge is to abolish blood feuds originating in unintentional acts. Instead, the Israelites were enjoined to have a trial with witnesses for such cases.
The book of Numbers ends with a short report of the success of the daughters of Zelophehad in holding on to their ancestral inheritance. Although there was no male heir in the family, the daughters petitioned God through Moses and were permitted to keep their father’s property. By marrying into their own clan, they ensured that their property remained within their father’s clan. “The Israelite tribes shall remain bound each to its portion.”
There is no mistaking the clannish worldview expressed in this double portion. The commandments in it are designed to limit blood feuds within the tribes of Israel, lest they “pollute” the land and the holy people to whom it is promised, and to ensure that the proper distribution of the land to each tribe remains its inheritance. To ensure this, the daughters of Zelophehad were instructed to inbreed. Endogamy was the solution.
Yet the Israelites fiercely carry out reprisal raids — blood feuds — against their neighbors because their women dared to try exogamy and seduce Israelite men. The Israelite revenge was to kill all except for the virgins. It was acceptable for the Israelites to take neighboring women by force — but it was wrong for these women to take Israelite men by allure.
In this dour month of Av, do we dare to hope that our generation might bring an end to the blood feuds with our neighbors that make our current history such a vale of tears? Might there finally be a month of Av in which we fulfill the promises of the earliest Mishna commentary: “All who mourn for Jerusalem will merit to rejoice with her”?
Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky is a professor of Midrash at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.