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