Parenting By Parsha: Matot-Massei

A few days ago, on the fourth of July, we had some friends over for a barbecue. It wasn’t so much to celebrate the holiday — it was more to celebrate friendship, and the fact that we can see each other in person now. The fact that we could all gather and grill together, in a Brooklyn backyard dotted with fireflies, is both wild and magical. 

All told, it was a great evening. After a slow (and funny) start, during which it was apparent that everyone sort of knew, but no-one really knew, how to light the coals we settled into the ebb and flow of conversation. Our little one wandered in and out in his bare feet, chattering with the other toddler who was present — a kid just a year older. They built together, took his dolls for a ride around the house in the stroller, lined up cars, and read books. They came outside for a while to eat grilled red pepper, and chicken, and corn on the cob (but actually off the cob). 

Eventually, we wrapped up things around ten and fell into bed, with full bellies and even fuller hearts. 

Us adults are all re-learning how to be together now, after a year of holing up in our apartments and waiting for the ship to right itself. Not that the ship (by which I mean the world) has gotten completely back on track, but with more and more vaccinated folks wandering around we are able to see one another once more. Which is both surreal and very normal. 

I was simultaneously nervous and elated before the barbecue. Do I still know how to talk to people I’m not married or related to? Will it be weird? Is it really like riding a bicycle? 

Our kiddo, though, is actually learning these skills for the first time. He hasn’t been in school or even had any real playdates until recently. We had planned for a nanny-share situation, or some kind of daycare, but then there was COVID. All plans got scrapped, and we became his only people. 

The Israelites are in a not-so-dissimilar situation at this moment in the Torah. After wandering and wandering in the desert, all on their own, they’re encountering other people. Of course, when Moses calls up the leaders of the Twelve Tribes, it’s not for a friendly barbecue, unless that’s what you call going to battle and burning a city to the ground. 

Still, there are interactions with other peoples and these encounters are forcing the Israelites to renegotiate their own behavioral patterns. One thing that comes up both for the Israelites in this week’s double portion, Matot-Massei, and for my kiddo at our house party is the trouble of how to share. 

“You and Eleazar the priest and the family heads of the community take an inventory of the booty that was captured, man and beast,” God tells Moses, in Numbers 31:26, “and divide the booty equally between the combatants who engaged in the campaign and the rest of the community.”

This sounds great, but it’s not so simple. First of all, there’s the matter of this being booty — material goods wrested from another nation during war. Not a great example of sharing.  Second, some of the plundered belongings have to first go to God, then they can be given to the soldiers who participated in the war. There’s a recognition that the items are unclean, having been obtained in violence (“any article that can withstand fire—these you shall pass through fire and they shall be clean, except that they must be cleansed with water of lustration; and anything that cannot withstand fire you must pass through water,” says Numbers 31:23), but the plunder is still considered acceptable. 

It makes me wonder: Where is the threshold after which grabbing something from someone else is acceptable? If the object was yours first, is it okay to grab it back? Can something obtained in violence ever really be cleansed? 

Sharing is hard, whether you’re only two or three years old or you’re a full-fledged adult. Both kiddos had a hard time with it this past Sunday; it wasn’t exactly always complete bliss. I caught sight of our little one’s friend hiding the doll she wanted to play with, but I also saw my own kiddo grab the pink stroller (loaded up with toy cars) away so he could push it himself. Both children were asserting their desires and independence, which is something we want to encourage. I don’t think it’s right to force anyone to share, but I also don’t think it’s alright to keep everything for ourselves. 

How can I teach these skills when I, myself, am feeling socially insecure? 

I think it helps to parse the text we’re presented with this week and to take the good bits. Not the go-to-war-and-plunder parts, but the sections that talk about recognizing your own needs and standing up for them. This happens while the combatants are divvying up the spoils of their crusade, but also later, when the tribes of Gad and Reuben to request that they receive land on the other side of the Jordan, outside Canaan. Both cases are controversial and necessitate delicate navigation. In each case, the answer is different. 

To me, this is just another way of showing that life is not uniform. Showing my kiddo how to share, or when not to share, needs to be negotiated on a case by case basis. Each social situation we delve into will also be examined and stepped into on its own. If anything, we’re learning together. I expect that we’ll learn a great deal from and with one another as we journey forwards.