MASE (3)

Bemidbar (Numbers) 33:50 to 36:13

(Plaut 1236; Hertz 716; Eitz Hayim 957)

by David Brooks


In the annual cycle, this week’s Torah reading covers two parashyotMatot and Masé, but with this, the third year of the triennial cycle, we are entirely in Parashat Masé.

The text begins just before the Israelites are to move into Canaan.  Quite appropriately, it relates God’s instructions about what the Israelites should do once they move into Canaan.  Among other things, the instructions cover:

·  Driving out the existing inhabitants of Canaan

·  Insisting that the Israelites shall dwell in the land, and, just a bit later, possess it

·  Destroying all the idols and places of worship of the former inhabitants

·  Dividing the land among 9 ½ tribes that did not stay east of the Jordan

·  Dividing the land assigned to any tribe by lots among the families

·  Defining and marking out the borders of the land given to the Israelites

·  Establishing who shall lead each of the tribes as they enter Canaan

·  Establishing 48 cities and the surrounding land as support for the Levites

·  Distinguishing six among those cities to be a refuge for someone guilty of manslaughter

·  Reminding us that these laws apply equally to Israelites and non-Israelites

·  Defining the difference between manslaughter and murder, along with

-          the role of the person who is supposed to avenge murder, and

-          the conditions of exile for the manslayer.

·  Establishing a rule that two witnesses are required for the sentence of murder

·  Finally, making laws of inheritance to prevent land passing from one tribe to another.


That is lot of instruction to give over the 83 verses in our parashah.  (I am avoiding the word “commandment” because only a few of these instructions appear among the 613 mitzvot that we are supposed to follow, presumably because they were to be carried out only once.)  Many apply only in Eretz Ysrael; a few are completely general; and almost all are the source for pages upon pages of interpretation.

I want to focus on some twists in the way the instructions are given.  For example, God seems to doubt whether the Israelites will really drive out all the inhabitants of Canaan.  Thus, God goes on to say that, if any remain, they will trouble you.  The wording varies with the translation.  According to the 1917 JPS Translation used by Hertz, those Canaanites will be ”thorns in your eyes and pricks in your sides.”  The New Jewish Version, used by Plaut and Eitz Chaim, translates “stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides.”  It is generally understood that the word “eyes” implies that they will lead the Israelites into idolatry, and that “thorns/pricks in your sides” implies ongoing conflict. The New Jewish Version’s use of the word ”thorns” seems to soften the impact, as if the Canaanites will be more of a nuisance than a disaster.  This seems to be verified when later, in Judges (2:5), an angel refers to the remaining inhabitants as snares and their gods as a trap.

The tougher question is what God means by saying that, if the Israelites do not drive out the Canaanites, as indeed they do not (Judges, 1:19-34), the Israelites will suffer the same fate.  One question is whether “inhabitants” means anyone other than Israelites or just idolators.  Putting that question to one side, it is nice to get a renewed indication that God offers us free will.  We can, if we choose, ignore commandments.  On the other hand, if we do, we will have to live with conflict, but not, as one might infer, be forced out of Eretz Ysrael.  Again turning to Judges (2:20 ff.), God reconsiders the threat and says, because Israel continues to transgress, they will not be able to drive out any of the remaining inhabitants who will, rather, be deliberately left in place to “prove” Israel.    (Cf. Dershowitz, The Genesis of Justice, 2000.)

The twice-repeated instruction to dwell in the land has been subject to lots of interpretation.  Nachmanides says that, if the Israelites choose a different land, they would be guilty of transgressing a positive commandment (cited in Hertz).  So much for the old idea of Uganda as a home for the Jews.  More importantly, this instruction is almost universally taken to mean that the Jews should cultivate Eretz Ysrael and grow food from the land.  I do not know how that accommodates today’s high-tech and mainly non-agricultural economy of Israel.  Perhaps it is only necessary that the land be cultivated, which satisfies ecological requirements, not that Israel be self-sufficient.

Many of the instructions have two edges to them.  For example, strong emphasis is given to the prohibition against accepting monetary payment as compensation for murder.  The death of the murderer is the only appropriate way to expiate the pollution that has occurred in Eretz Ysrael.  This is pretty heavy going for those of us who oppose capital punishment.  On the other hand, the explicit prohibition against monetary payment as a way to expiate murder was taken by the rabbis of the Mishnah to imply that payment is acceptable for lesser injuries.  Thus, they totally rescue us from what, back in Shemot (21:24), had seemed to be eye-for-an-eye kinds of punishment for all sorts of injuries.  We now understand that we are to interpret this as the value of an eye, not the eye itself.

The careful distinction between murder and manslaughter also has two edges.  Even without the limitations that came later in the Talmud, the role for a blood avenger is strictly restricted to the case of murder.  Moreover, the blood avenger must be a close relative, and his (I think it is appropriate to use the masculine here) only target can be the murderer himself.  Tit-for-tat feuds are prohibited.  Perhaps most thing, the decision about what is murder as opposed to manslaughter is a communal decision, not one for an individual.  Further, the definition of murder depended, more than anything else, on intent (Plaut, citing Bachya, 1250), which is of course hard to prove.  Finally, we learn, almost as an aside, that at least two witnesses are required to convict anyone of murder, a rule that is repeated with more emphasis in Deuteronomy (17:6).

The punishment for manslaughter is exile, not death – and exile not outside, but within, the land of Israel.  A much better deal.  Or is it?  Assuming that most of those sent into exile were men, his family had lost a major source of income.  If he was head of the family, things would be still worse, especially as his exile is for an indeterminate length of time – until the death of the High Priest, which might be next week or 10 years in the future.  And, just as with murder, the time cannot be shortened by any monetary payment.  Any kind of death has a polluting quality that requires another death to purify – a real death in the case of murder; a ritualistic one in the case of manslaughter.

Two of the twists give me problems that I could not resolve.  The first involves the borders of the promised land.   The text says clearly that a certain area is for the Israelites and the rest is not.  Some of modern-day Israel lies within those boundaries and some is beyond them – and of course some lies in the West Bank and in Gaza.  The differences may create political problems, but here I am concerned with halachic problems.  How do I reconcile the borders defined here with those in Chapter 1 of Joshua, which extend from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates?  (Speak about political problems!)  I don’t know how one reconciles the two sets of borders.  Apart from noting that, under King Solomon, Israel did extend its authority as far as the Euphrates, I found no explanation in the commentaries.  Even if one accepts Plaut’s approach (1240, basing his comment on TB Gittin 8a) that one should treat the Biblically defined borders as determining “whether or not one is inside Eretz Yisrael in the halachic sense” rather than in the political sense, I still do not know which borders apply.

The other problem I cannot resolve stems from what appears to be an internal contradiction in the instructions themselves.  Quoting Eitz Chaim, verse 33:54 reads:

You shall apportion the land among yourselves by lot, clan by clan: with larger groups increase the share, with smaller groups reduce the share.  Wherever the lot falls for anyone that shall be his.  You shall have your portions according to your ancestral tribes.

I do not understand how one can simultaneously assign land by lot and also by size.  Sort of like lining up by age and height simultaneously.  There must be an explanation for this apparent contradiction but Hertz, Plaut and the authors of Eitz Haim all pass over it in silence, as do all of the divrai Torah I was able to find on the web.

In summary, this last parash in Numbers covers a lot of ground.  Though it is not given with any special designation, as with some of the other codifications of law, perhaps it deserves one.  It is almost a mini-code.  The instructions are really less about how we should take possession of the land than how we are to live on the land once it has come into our possession.  As such, this mini-code is almost as relevant to us today as it was to the 12 Israelite tribes primed to enter the promised land.