Parshat Matot-Masei

Parshat Matot-Masei

The journey to the Land of Israel and the journey through the Land of Israel – ethical pronouncements and accepting a complex reality

Rabbanit Bili Rabenstein, Israeli Rosh Beit Midrash, Midreshet Lindenbaum

The Conclusion of the Book of Numbers

Parshat Masei concludes the book of Numbers, and true to its name, it summarizes the journey that the people of Israel took through the desert. Chapter 33 is dedicated to summarizing the journey, while chapter 34 lays out the borders of the Land of Israel and lists the names of those leaders who will inherit the land. Presumably, it would have made sense to conclude the Book of Numbers here, at the end of the account of the journey until that point, and when the next destination has been set.

However, contrary to what we would expect, after this logical conclusion, the Torah continues with a discussion of three more specific subjects, and the Book of Numbers ends only after those chapters. This surprising conclusion calls for further investigation. The three subjects discussed at this point are the Levitical cities, the “cities of refuge”, and the decision that a daughter who inherits her father’s estate must only marry one from her tribe. I’ll try to briefly analyze these three subjects, and focus on the values they represent.

Levitical cities

Presumably, we could argue that the value underpinning this chapter is caring for the underprivileged. By choosing this point in the text to discuss the subject, the Torah has indicated that this is a central value, which will form the underpinnings for life in the land. However, if this were to be the statement the Torah was interested in making, it would have been best to have listed the other commandments tied to caring for the underprivileged in society, such as the laws regarding our dealings with orphans and widows. Therefore, the real focus of this Parsha would seem to be the issue of inheritance. Every Israelite, both rich or poor, is given an inheritance. Only the portion of the Levites was held back, and in light of this, each of the tribes is asked not to stay holed up within the confines of their lands, but rather, to see past their borders and donate part of their inherited lands to the Levites. The Torah states that the Levitical cities must be given to them by the Israelites. The action of giving, by one party, and the action of receiving, by the other, sets out the relationship between Levites and Israelites, and leaves a lasting impression on the psyches of all involved.

 An inheriting daughter

The third and last chapter in the Book of Numbers discusses the law regarding the daughters of Zelophechad, who inherited their father’s portion, as described in Parshat Pinchas. Their fellow tribesmen told Moses of their concern that the daughters of Zelophechad would marry people from other tribes, and that this would cause the portion of the tribe of Menashe to shrink. We would have expected this story to have been recorded earlier, in Parshat Pinchas. The Ibn Ezra (and other later commentators) explains that this episode was recounted at this juncture to complement the chapters that deal with estates and how they are to be divided up, following the commandments on the establishment of Levitical cities.

 “Pleasant ways” – idealism meets reality

I’d like to suggest that this chapter is a counterweight to the picture illustrated in the case of the Levitical cities. The underlying principle behind the designation of Levitical cities is national unity, to insure that all of the Israelites act together, as one. This commandment is designed to tear down the walls between the tribes and create a broader framework than the tribal system. A national framework.

However, Menashe’s request returns us to the tribal framework. It calls on us to cling on to that system. Nahmanides mentions that apparently, this request, namely that the women of the tribe only marry fellow tribesmen, had only been heeded by that generation, since it would be virtually impossible to maintain this “tribal purity” in future generations. Moreover, when the Gemara discusses the factors that set apart the fifteenth of the month of Av, making it one of the two happiest dates in the history of the Jewish people, it lists a number of explanations. The first explanation is that on this day, the edict requiring inheriting daughters to only marry within their tribes was cancelled: “However, what is the special joy of the fifteenth of Av? Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: This was the day on which the members of different tribes were permitted to enter one another’s tribe, by intermarriage. What did they expound, in support of their conclusion that this Halakha was no longer in effect? The verse states: “This is the matter that Hashem has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophechad… They derived from the verse that this matter shall be practiced only in this generation”. So, according to Shmuel’s method of understanding the verse, the decision that an inheriting daughter would only marry within her tribe was a retroactive decision, and we should be glad that it was cancelled.

Here, we have a wonderful Biblical model for “Its ways are pleasant ways”: one the one hand, the Torah unequivocally determines the objective and what we should aspire to – we aim to create the framework of a nation, without any walls to divide us, or tribal separations. On the other hand, the model recognizes the reality the nation was faced with at that point in time, and in that location. Each tribe was poised to enter the Land of Israel, and saw itself as a separate entity. It was almost overprotective of its own inheritance, which could be threatened by the other tribes. Halakha provides a solution that works within this reality. It doesn’t take a stand against this tribalist thought, though the day the edict is cancelled will become a national holiday that expresses the achievement of our objective.

By connecting the discussion of the Levitical cities with that of inheriting daughters, the Torah charts out a path to uniting the nation, while recognizing the voices arising from people and letting those voices be heard.

Cities of Refuge

The two chapters discussed above – the designation of Levitical cities and the laws of inheriting daughters – are separated by another chapter: the discussion of the cities of refuge. There are several reasons that these chapters appear one after another. The first is that the Torah is dealing with different cities that the Israelites are commandment to set aside from the territories they had inherited, so that they could be used for the common good. The second is that the cities of refuge were all Levitical cities. I would propose that beyond this logical connection, the chapter on the cities of refuge appears at the very end of one of the Five Books of Moses because of the values it contains, values that are the building blocks for forging a society on its way to the Land of Israel.

In the text, a city to which someone who had accidentally killed someone else could flee is called a “city of refuge”. The language changes when we transition from the Biblical text to rabbinical literature. In rabbinical literature, the cities are refuge are depicted as a place of banishment. The semantic gap between the words “refuge” and “banishment” is substantial, for several reasons. The word “refuge” carries the connotation of a place where one could escape to for protection and compassion. For that person, staying in that place of refuge is an opportunity. It has truly rescued him or her. However, the word “banishment”, borrowed from the field of criminal law, connotes something entirely different. In this case, this is an individual whom society is required to punish for his or her crimes.

It seems as though our sages had strayed from the simple reading of the text. If we revisit the text, we’ll discover penal aspect of the cities of refuge implied in the Torah itself. First, we mustn’t ignore the explicit language of the text: “[one who] murders accidentally”. Second, the Torah states that the murderer must remain in the city of refuge “until the death of the high priest… after the death of the high priest, the murderer may return to his land holding.” If these cities were only meant for providing protection, the death of the high priest would not remove the danger facing one who had accidentally murdered. By tying the death of the high priest to this law, the Torah leads us to the understanding that by living in a city of refuge, the accidental murderer was indeed serving out a sentence. Thus we can conclude that the sages had not created their own interpretation of the text ex nihilo. Rather, they have uncovered another layer hidden deep within the text itself, though this isn’t stated explicitly.

A world of complexities

This in-depth reading of the chapter on the cities of refuge leads to formulating a complex principle with regard to accidental murderers. On the one hand, these individuals are in need of protection, and society must make sure they are safe. On the other hand, the Torah incisively maintains that taking another person’s life isn’t something that can be taken lightly, and that these incidents must rattle individuals and their surroundings.

Seemingly, with the Israelites at the doorstep to the Land of Israel as the book recounting the Israelites’ wandering in the desert comes to a close, the Torah must present this double-sided picture, founded upon the value of the life of the accidental murder, a person that we must protect, for better or for worse, as well as the value of those lives that were lost, and the need to pay a price for their deaths.

In conclusion, the three final chapters of the Book of Numbers illustrate the necessity to perceive the complexities of reality.

On a national level, the tension between the chapter on Levitical cities and the chapter on the inheriting daughters is a symbolic manifestation of the tension between idealism and reality. The Torah discusses the ideal of erasing tribal borders, but it also recognizes that at that time, this was the Israelites’ conception, and the Torah allows this view to be expressed in halakhic ordinances.

On a more personal level, the individual case of the accidental murder is examined in the chapter on cities of refuge, while considering various aspects of this picture: the need to protect a person who is being pursued, while punishing that person for the death he or she caused.

In this way, the conclusion of the Book of Numbers is directly tied to developing a more nuanced way of looking at things, which takes into consideration a combination of facts and a complete worldview. Perhaps, until this point in the Book of Numbers, the nation had never needed to perform this kind of introspection. Now, however, at the doorstep of the Promised Land, is the time to do so.

Absolute truth

This is one more point to raise, however. I believe that I’d be remiss to conclude the study of Parshat Masei with a mere statement that praises complexity. After all, even when studying complexity, we must adopt a complex method of contemplation.

The chapter on the cities of refuge ends with these words: “You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I, Hashem, abide among the Israelite people.”

I feel within this complex picture involving the figure of an accidental murderer, the Torah unequivocally determines that our values must be clear and succinct: “… the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it”. These verses teach us that the estate we inherited, which we forcefully took, is not promised to us for all time. This is the land where Hashem dwells, and if we defile it by spilling innocent blood, it might spew us out. Similarly, while charting a path that beckons us to contemplate things while taking in their complexity, and to be open to the various aspects of every case, the Torah sets clear red lines that are never to be crossed.

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