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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT MATTOT- MASEY - BIRKAT HAHODESH
July 14, 2007 – 28 Tammuz 5767

Annual: Numbers 30:2 – 36:13 (Etz Hayim, p. 941; Hertz p. 702)
Triennial: Numbers 33:50 – 36:13 (Etz Hayim, p. 957; Hertz p. 716)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4 – 28; 3:4 (Etz Hayim, p. 973; Hertz p. 725)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

The beginning of this week’s double Torah portion gives guidelines about vows and their annulment.

The following chapter deals with an all-out war against the Midianites. Unlike many other wars in the ancient world, this one was fought not to acquire spoils but to remove the rather effective threat that the Midianites posed to the religious standards to which the Israelites aspired.

In the wake of conquests made on the eastern side of the Jordan River, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and some of the tribe of Manasseh petition Moses for the pasture lands in these areas. Moses, concerned that the Israelites’ unity and morale might be undermined if these tribes settle down early, before the other tribes had had a chance to conquer the Promised Land on the west side of the Jordan, extracts a promise that they would not retire from their military role before the other tribes’ lands had also been conquered.

Looking backward at the Israelites’ travels of 40 years in the desert, we are given an itinerary of the places in which they had camped.

Looking ahead, the Israelites are warned to uproot idol-worship from the Promised Land.

Guidelines for dividing up the Promised Land among the tribes are given. Interspersed throughout the tribes’ lands are to be cities of Levites, surrounded by fields. In this way, the Levites could be physically close to all the tribes. This would tend to make it easier for the Levites to perform their religious and educational duties.

Guidelines for the treatment of a person who commits involuntary manslaughter are given as well. Unlike a premeditated murderer, who was subject to the death penalty, the involuntary manslayer was to be exiled to one of six cities of refuge that were spread throughout the land. (These cities happened to be cities of the Levites. Perhaps some rehabilitation of the manslayer was implied.) The manslayer was to remain in this internal exile until the death of the Kohen Gadol, the high priest.

The book of Numbers closes with a postscript to the problem of the daughters of Zelophehad. The members of their tribe worried that now that the daughters could inherit land, the geographic territory of their tribe could be eroded if these women married men from another tribe. This potential problem was resolved, to the apparent satisfaction of all concerned.

Topic #1: How Nomadic Were Our Ancestors?

In Chapter 33, we read the itinerary of the Israelites’ wanderings. Many of us are in the habit of thinking of the Israelites as nomads who knew no rest in their 40 years in the desert. Some of us approach this reading with as much patience as we would bring to a dramatic reading of someone else’s travel directions from MapQuest. Admittedly, this list of wilderness encampment locations might not make for the most riveting chapter in the Torah. Yet there is valuable information here, including the raw material for an illuminating perspective on the frequency of the wanderings.

In commenting on Numbers 33:1, Rashi (1040-1105) cites an analysis of the itinerary by an exegete ironically named Rabbi Moshe:

There are only 42 journeys here. Subtract 14 from this total, since all of these were during the first year…. Also, subtract eight journeys that took place after the death of Aaron … in the fortieth year. It turns out that in all the (middle) 38 years, they only journeyed 20 times.

If we have been picturing our ancestors breaking camp and moving weekly, or even monthly, these numbers should cause us to re-evaluate this impression. Our revised perspective would show a semi-nomadic group that may have migrated from one oasis to the next, remaining in place (other than the first and the last of the 40 years) for almost two years, on average, at each stop. Why, then, would later prophets cite the wanderings in the desert as a sign of loving devotion and growing loyalty to God on the part of the Israelites? Consider, for example, the following passage from Jeremiah (2:2-3):

Thus said the Lord: I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride – how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruits of His harvest...

What was so praiseworthy about the Israelites’ following a divinely dictated series of journeys in the wilderness?

Hint # 1: They were not told the itinerary in advance. The Israelites were being asked to show a great deal of trust.

Hint # 2: Even though they stayed in most locations for many months, as outlined above, they had to be prepared to break camp and travel at a moment’s notice. (See, for example, Numbers 9:16-23.)

Topic #2: Why is the Exile of the Involuntary Manslayer Measured by the Lifespan of the Kohen Gadol?

It is puzzling that the Torah prescribes that a person who commits involuntary manslaughter should be exiled to a city of refuge “until the death of the high priest” (Numbers 35:25). The rationale for this indefinite (and seemingly arbitrary) period of exile is elusive.

To some, it appears that the death of the Kohen Gadol somehow brings expiation for any carelessness that may have contributed to the involuntary manslaughter. This seemingly would imply that on a metaphysical level, the world is out of balance until the death of either the Kohen Gadol or the involuntary manslayer. This situation cries out for further explanation.

One viewpoint says that the Kohen Gadol, as a spiritual leader, is responsible for any damaging acts that occur on his watch. Another perspective sees the death of a beloved national spiritual leader as a calamity felt so deeply by all Israelites that their private pain, including the pain of the person bereaved in an accidental manslaughter pales by comparison.

A third point of view sees a certain symmetry within these guidelines: The deliberate murderer is deliberately put to death, while the involuntary manslayer, who took someone’s life by chance, must wait for the chance death of the Kohen Gadol before he can gain the opportunity to rejoin his community. (Arnold B. Ehrlich, Mikra Ki-Pheshutto, as paraphrased by Jacob Milgrom in The JPS Commentary, Numbers, Excursus 76, page 510)

Does one of these rationales appeal to you, or can you propose a more compelling reason why the exile of the involuntary manslayer ends with the death of the Kohen Gadol?


 
 
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