Tag Archives: Masei

Our Journeys

This Dvar Torah was Given by Morry Safer on Juy 25, 2014 

Shabbat Shalom.

This Shabbat’s parashah is a very rare occurrence of the Jewish calendar.  Almost always, Mattot (which we read last week) and Mas’ei (which we read this week) are read together as there are usually more parshiot than there are Shabbatot in the year.  The maximum possible number of Shabbatot in a calendar year occur in years such as this one, leap years where Simchat Torah begins on a Thursday.  In communities which observe two days of yom tov, these are the only conditions under which Parshat Mas’ei is read by itself and we can therefore focus uniquely on its meaning – an alignment which will not occur again for another 21 years.  In another interesting arrangement of the calendar, Parshat Mas’ei, whether read alone or combined, is always read on a Shabbat during the three weeks between Shivah Asar B’Tammuz – the commemoration of the breach of the outer walls during the siege of Jerusalem – and Tishah B’Av – our national day of mourning.

As we conclude the book of Bemidbar, our Mas’ei – our journeys — through the wilderness are complete.  Parshat Mas’ei gives us both an opportunity to look back on our travels and simultaneously look ahead towards the settlement of the Promised Land.  We begin with a rather bland retelling of all of the 42 waypoints of the last 40 years.

וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵרַעְמְסֵס…

“And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses, and camped in Succoth.”   “And they journeyed from Succoth, and pitched in Etham.”

Et cetera.  42 times.

Only three locations get any special mention:  Elim, described as an oasis with water and palm trees; Rephidim, where there was no water; and Mount Hor where Aaron died.  No miracle at the Red Sea is mentioned – just “and they passed through the sea.”  No giving of the Torah – just “and they journeyed through the wilderness of Sinai.”   No golden calf.   No building of the Mishkan. No destruction of Korach and his followers.

None of the miracles and nation-building stories of the last three books are recalled here.  The implication is that, while the journey was a collective one, the details are very personal.  While we collectively mourn Aaron’s passing, there was an entire generation of families lost along the way.  Each stop had different meaning to the individuals involved and this is our opportunity – on the cusp of entering the Land of Israel, to recognize the individual stories within the collective.    In interpreting these verses, the Ba’al Shem Tov taught “Whatever happened to the people as a whole will happen to each individual. All the 42 journeys of the children of Israel will occur to each individual between the time he is born and the time he dies.”   That is, everyone will be in each of these places, but the experiences in each will be very personal.

Looking forward, we receive direction for starting to build society within the new land.  Of particular interest is the commandment to establish “Cities of Refuge” – specially designated cities where those who had killed someone accidentally could escape the bloodlust revenge that was the norm in the region.  The opportunity to break the cycle of violence is an ethical advancement beyond the previously applicable “eye for an eye” laws, but I find the details of these cities to further illuminate the moral imperative.

First, these cities are created

לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְלַגֵּר וְלַתּוֹשָׁב בְּתוֹכָם

“… For the Children of Israel and for the strangers and for those who live among them”.  There is a broader respect for the diversity of our community and our neighbors implied in extending the reach of this refuge.

Second, six cities total are to be established – three on each side of the Jordan River.  Despite only two and a half tribes settling transJordan, they are given equal geographic accessibility.  Commentaries suggest that the Eastern border of the settled land was full of warring enemies and, therefore, on a per-capita basis, the two and a half Eastern tribes and their neighbors would require even greater access to such safe harbor.

Third, the accidental killer was restricted to the refuge city.  Specifically, outside the city limits, the avenger of the victim (usually a member of the victim’s family) was free in pursuit.  This is a key point, for in the case of a victim with no family, the Talmud teaches that a court-appointed avenger would be assigned.  Accidental death is still punished, just without further death.

Fourth, the six cities of refuge are specifically listed among the 48 cities settled by the Levites.  Thus, the implication is that those being punished are given rehabilitation through exposure to spirituality and music for which the Levites were known.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, the killer’s sentence is to be commuted immediately upon the death of the Kohen Gadol.  When we traditionally measure life sentences, it isn’t in relation to someone else’s life.  The Kohen Gadol, representing spiritual and ethical leadership, was held responsible for all unnatural deaths under his watch, even if had no direct involvement.  The population of the Cities of Refuge would therefore be a scorecard of all the failings of his influence and guidance.

In the context of the modern zeitgeist, I think Parshat Mas’ei gives us an appropriate opportunity to both look back on our history and look forward to a future of possibility.  During the three weeks, we spend a lot of time retelling our collective history.  As if the current Matzav wasn’t enough focus, recalling the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of both Temples brings us into close connection with our homeland in Israel.  The list of tragedy associated with these weeks does not stop there, with coincidence with key events in the Shoah, the Spanish Inquisition, pogroms, and many other tragic times in our history.   These events speak to each of us with varying sensitivity and we therefore arrive together as a people with differing sensibilities and opinions.  Clearly, there is a lot in that history to make us a vengeful, insular and reactionary community.

And yet, the lessons of the Cities of Refuge encourage us to value life, to innovate beyond the status quo in ethically treating those who deserve to be punished, and to extend our protections to include our neighbors and adversaries.  In the modern parlance of hashtag activism, the lessons of the Kohen Gadol, charge our leaders with a holistic vision of #NotOneMore.   We can praise the IDF for their use of technology and progressive policies to attempt to limit the casualties in the current conflict, but as long as there are soldiers killed and Israeli and Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire, there is still a lot of work to be done.  We can debate specific domestic policies of gun control, social services, and border security, but as long as there continue to be school shootings, medically preventable deaths, and child victims on our borders, there is still more to do.

The solutions are not obvious or easy. They require a strength of spirit and belief that, through creativity and focus, we can do better than we are doing today.  They insist that we are ethically strong enough to regard no casualties resulting from our policies and priorities as inherently necessary.  For the sake of ourselves, our neighbors, and the strangers who live among us, may we grow in the moral strength necessary to find peace, well-being, and blessing – bimherah b’yameinu – speedily in our own lifetimes.  Hazzak hazzak v’nitchazek.

Shabbat Shalom.


Aaron Sorkin’s Matot-Masei

This KICKS Dvar Torah was given by Rabbi Rachel Silverman on 7/5/13

The past week and a half has given us enough political drama for a TV show. In fact, last week, while watching Senator Wendy Davis’s 11-hour filibuster in the Texas senate and awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court, I mentioned to friends that it felt like we were living in an Aaron Sorkin TV show. And this week’s news from Egypt only reinforces that feeling – particularly since that story has been unfolding during our own holiday of Independence.

In reality though, our current news cycle (and perhaps Sorkin’s writing) has roots in the Torah – in specifically, in the parsha we read last week and in the two that we read this
week. There we see examples of leadership transition, tribal and political unrest, and the expansion of laws to be more inclusive. Last week, we were introduced to the daughters of Zelophehad. In the division of property, these women (named: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah) were initially overlooked. Their father had died and they had no brothers, so according to the Torah’s original law, they were out of luck – property was passed from father to son. Naturally, they found this law to be unfair and brought up their complaint with Moses. Moses, knowing the law and knowing that these women had a valid concern, did not know what to do. Should he uphold an unjust law and exclude them? Or should he, could he, write a new law that would include them?

In a beautiful example of compassion and acknowledgement that this was a situation which he could not handle alone, Moses turned to his own Supreme Court and asked God for guidance. God ruled in favor of expanding the law, saying “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen: transfer their father’s share to them”. In other words, they’re right, they are entitled to inherit their father’s land. God goes on to say that this is not a one-time ruling. This is a new law for all time – in the absence of sons to inherit land, daughters can inherit their father’s land. 

Last week’s parsha left the story there – and in my dramatized “made for TV” movie of this story, the credits roll, the lobbyists breathe a sigh of relief, and those of us watching along feel a sense that the justice system is intact. The women have earned what was rightfully theirs.

And then we get to this week’s Torah portion – Mattot-Ma’asei – when we see the story again, at the very end of the Book of Numbers. And this time, it comes with a counterprotest.
It is as if the opposition had a week to reorient themselves, craft a counter argument, and now the outcome is once again uncertain. The fellow tribesmen from the tribe of Maneshah argue that, ok these women can inherit the land, BUT if these women get married, the land will transfer to their husbands’ tribes – and thus the Tribe of Maneshah will lose land, while other tribes gain it. God finds that this objection to the new rule is valid and the women agree to marry within their own tribe.

It feels almost ironic to use this example of law-expansion to relate to the Defense of Marriage Act that was overturned last week – in that, the end of the story is that these women are very much restricted in who they can marry! But the truth is, these laws were incredibly progressive at the time – and more importantly, the Torah, by mentioning these women by name and their story, no less than 3 times, is giving us a strong model for empowerment and a case for standing up for justice and expanding rights. It gives me great pride to know that the Torah has been a compassionate model for justice long before our country’s legal system caught up.

But last week’s Supreme Court case is not the only news story that has connections in the Book of Numbers.

Many of us have spent this week with one eye on the news unfolding from Egypt. Is it a revolution? A coup? A long-overdue demonstration of justice? Our own history, Jewish
and American, tells us that political transformation is never easy and, in fact, is almost always messy – even if that’s not the story we like to remember and tell.

Last week’s parsha told the story of Moses transferring power to Joshua. The Israelite people are witness to a beautiful, graceful, and very public transfer of power from one
leader to the next. Exactly as leadership transitions should happen.

This is not what we are seeing in Egypt. But the truth is, maybe this is not what actually happened with Moses either. The STORY of Moses’s transition from leadership reads as a powerful and thoughtful example of leaders putting the good of the people ahead of themselves. But the REALITY is that Moses didn’t stop being the leader at the end of chapter 27 of Numbers that we read last week. He’s very much still leading the Israelites – now and for at least 20 more chapters in Deuteronomy.

Our stories of independence, revolution, and leadership transition are much smoother than they are in real life. In reality, transition is full of compromise, uncertainty, competing demands, and countering the status-quo. We just prefer to gloss over those aspects when telling our founding myths.

We read in chapter 32, at the end of Parshat Mattot, that the Tribes of Reuben and Gad were not entirely cooperative in the plan to settle the Land of Israel. They didn’t want to cross into the Land. They had cattle and they wanted to graze them elsewhere – in specific, on the other side of the Jordan River. And because they wanted to settle outside of Israel, they weren’t entirely interested in fighting with the rest of the Israelites to conquer the Land either. It took compromise on both sides to come to an agreement.

That’s not often part of the story that we tell because we like to think that the end result matters more than how we got there. But this incident gives us a glimpse into the sometimes messy process that happens along the road towards self-governance and leadership transition.

My blessing for us, as we enter Shabbat, is that we continue to use the Torah as a model for ever-expanding justice – here, abroad, and in our own hearts. Shabbat Shalom.

“Hey, pay attention!” adding meaning to the potentially mundane

This Dvar Torah was given by Stephanie Berkowitz on 8/25/11

This week’s parasha, Masei, is one of the shorter in the Torah. So, not a whole lot happens. Basically there are four main points:

  1. We start out with a long list recounting all the places the Jewish people camped during their 40 years wandering the desert.
  2. We are told the boundaries of the Land of Israel.
  3. We are given instructions to set 48 cities in Israel aside for the Levites to live in because their sacred duties will preclude them from owning land. Of those, 6 cities will become Irei Miklat, cities of refuge. If someone inadvertently kills someone, usually through negligence, then they are sent to live in an Ir Miklat. This will simultaneously protect them from revenge and punish them for their negligence.
  4. We get a recounting of the story of the daughters of Zelophephad, who we learned about a few weeks ago. Zelophephad died with no sons to inherit his land and it was determined that his daughters could inherit it instead. Now we learn a refinement of the policy–if the women marry outside of their tribe, the land will not go with them to their husband’s tribe.

Thus ends the book of Bemidbar. While it’s not the most exciting or detailed parasha in the Torah, there is some interesting stuff in there. However, the most interesting and noteworthy thing about this week’s parasha is the trope or notes with which we chant it.

The ta`amei ha-mikra or Torah Trope are symbols used to indicate what melody the Torah reader should use when chanting from the Torah. These markings are like punctuation marks, helping the reader understand when to pause, etc. Additionally, trope often add another layer of meaning to the text. Certain words are elongated while others are read quickly, which can help us to understand unstated messages of the narrative.

The idea of trope originated with the Levites in the First Temple era. In addition to their other duties, the Levites were musicians and they developed melodies to chant the text. They used hand signals to help one another remember the correct tune. Sometime after the destruction of the second Temple these signals were written down and eventually evolved into the trope we use today.

The physical appearance of the trope marks are now the same everywhere. How those notes are sung, however, varies. For instance, a Yemenite reading of the Torah sounds significantly different than a reading by someone from Germany. Also any given symbol sounds different if you are reading hafTorah instead of Torah or Megillat Esther or Shir HaShirim, etc. We sometimes use special tunes for certain times of year like the High Holidays or Tisha B’Av to convey a certain feeling.

So, what does this have to do with the parasha? Well Masei includes a few very unusual trope. In fact, there are two trope in the parasha that do not appear anywhere else in the Torah. They are called Karnei Farah, which means cow’s horns and looks like this:


and Yerach ben yomo, which means day old moon and looks like this:


These are found in the part of the parasha that describe the land set aside for the Levites.  We are told to measure off two thousand cubits outside the town on the east side, two thousand on the south side, two thousand on the west side, and two thousand on the north side, with the town in the center. This will be the Levite’s grazing land.

Rabeinu Tam in the 12th century teaches that the trope are there to prevent us from misinterpreting the text. By mentioning four directions, the text seems to imply that the grazing land should be X shaped. But the trope imply roundness. The circularness of karnei farah is obvious and the yarech ben yomo is to remind us of a sliver of moon which one day is a sliver of a waning moon and the next day the sliver of a waxing moon. Together they form a circle around a central point. Thus, we understand that the Levites should get a circle with a radius of 2000 cubits around each city and not just an X. Given that the Levites invented the trope, perhaps it is no accident that this passage gets special treatment.

As an interesting aside, though these trop are found only once in the Torah, Rabeinu Tam says they are found 11 other times in Tanach. Only one of these is in a part that is traditionally chanted aloud however. In Esther 7:9, it reads, “Behold the gallows that Haman made for Mordecai, who spoke well for the king, standing in Haman’s house, fifty cubits high!” And the king said, “Hang him on it!” Here the trop are found on the words “Haman made,” to highlight the point– what goes around, comes around.

Back in this week’s parasha, there is one more unusual melody. It is the tune used for several verses during the first aliyah, that part of the Parasha with the long list of desert encampments. Interestingly, we’ll use this same tune at the end of the Torah reading when we finish the book of Bemidbar and sing Hazak Hazak V’Nithazek. Recognize that melody? In addition to the Hazakah, this melody is used 4 times during the annual Torah reading cycle. I’m going to attempt to sing a few of them for you in English so that you can get an idea of what type of things merit this tune even if you don’t know much Hebrew:

There was evening and there was morning, a first day.

I will sing to God for God’s great victory, Horse and rider God threw in the sea.

And one you probably recognize in Hebrew:
מי כמכה באלם יהוה מי כמכה נאדר בקדש

All of these are big, miraculous, divine moments. Now here’s how the melody is used this week:

And they journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, and pitched in Dophkah… and they journeyed from Dophkah, and pitched in Alush. They set out from the wilderness of Sinai and encamped at Kibroth-hattaavah.  They set out from Kibroth-hattaavah and encamped at Hazeroth. They set out from Hazeroth and encamped at Rithmah.

Not exactly the same kind of obvious excitement. Why do the stages of a 40-year-long trip through the desert filled with misery and complaining deserve musical accompaniment? What is our Torah reading tradition attempting to illustrate for us by using this tune?

For one thing, and this is no understatement, it is a miracle that God stuck with us through all the whining and complaining and sinning. It is miraculous that this generation that does not remember the Exodus continued on this disjointed journey toward a mysterious promised land. But moreover, the recap of our sojourn in the desert is worthy of a special tune because this is truly the central story of the Torah. It is not about our arrival in Israel, but rather about our search for our homeland. Our very name and ultimately the name of this place is Yisrael, means to wrestle with God.

Recently in the blog Conservative Judaism, Jeremy Borovitz wrote in an essay on making prayer meaningful that Prayer is not about talking to God. Prayer is about TRYING to talk to God.

In both places where we have special melodies in the parasha they occur on seemingly mundane passages. It’s a way of saying, “Hey, pay attention!” The trope illustrate for us that although the destination is important, the learning and growth of the journey is even more important.