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Matot/Masei  (Tribes/Travel) Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

This week, we read a double portion, Matot/Masei!  I share a thought with you about the first part of the double portion below but if you would like an additional thought about the second part of the double portion, just scroll down.

Bible and Land must be Linked

Numbers chapter 32 describes an interesting encounter between the tribes of Reuben and Gad and Moses. Having just conquered land to the east of the Jordan River, they request permission to settle permanently in this area, in the Gilead and Bashan, an area rich in grazing land and so vital to these two tribes of many cattle. Moses’ initial response is a distressed one:

Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here? Why will you discourage the heart of the people of Israel from going over into the land that the Lord has given them? (Numbers 32:6-7)

Moses then reminds them of the sin of the spies who had returned from the Land of Israel and spoke ill of the land, causing the people to doubt the success of their imminent entry. God’s response, of course, was to punish the people and delay the entry for an additional 38 years. Moses fears that if Reuben and Gad remain in the land east of the Jordan, the rest of the people will refuse to enter. After years of experience with the Children of Israel, Moses is quite aware that the littlest provocation can instill fear and lack of faith in the people. 

As a result, he continues, For if you turn away from following him, He will again abandon them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all these people.” (Numbers 32:15) 

While Moses’ fear of angering God seems very legitimate, and his fear that Reuben and Gad’s actions might have a negative influence on the people is logical, the last phrase which indicates that the Nation of Israel would be destroyed seems a bit extreme. After all, the nation survived its first delay. Why wouldn’t it survive an additional one?

Remember, however, that at this point in time, Moses is close to his death and God has already told him how he will die (Numbers 27:13).  An entire generation has already died in the desert, those adults who had actually experienced the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai. The only people who were adults at these two seminal events who are still alive and who will actually enter the Land of Israel are Joshua and Caleb, those valiant spies who were rewarded because of their faith in and love of the Land. If these individuals remain in the desert another generation, no one who enters the land will have experienced the Exodus and Sinai. And it is this vital detail that threatens the continued existence of the nation.

The people of Israel are the only people in the world who were exiled from their land for 2,000 years and yet remained intact as a people and as a faith. What kept us going all those years was the fact that we had the Torah, the Bible, as a guide through the years of exile, and we had a land to yearn for. But those two elements, Bible and Land, had to be linked together, experientially, in some way, in order for the connection to last for eternity.

Joshua’s entry into the Land will mark a real departure from the sort of Divine leadership that the Children of Israel experienced in the desert. The miraculous parting of the Red Sea, the Manna from Heaven, and a host of other miracles will give way to a more natural existence in the Land of Israel. And this is reflected in the very real battles that Joshua will fight in the conquest of the Land. But  Joshua is equipped to do this because of the spiritual experiences he witnessed since leaving Egypt.

Joshua leads the people into the land, having personally experienced the Exodus, the revelation at Sinai, and indeed all the wars and tribulations of the desert. Through his personal experience, he can help the Children of Israel connect to the land, and experience the meaning of freedom from slavery, of receiving the Torah. Through Joshua, the link is preserved and passed on forever.


And here is a thought from the second portion: Masei (Journeys) – Numbers 33:1 - 36:13

Recognizing and Limiting Revenge

Chapter 35 details the rules of cities of refuge that are established throughout the Land of Israel, three on the eastern side of the Jordan and three on the western side. Only one who kills someone by accident is entitled to seek refuge in such a city. If someone has intentionally killed someone or used a weapon or a dangerous tool to strike someone, he is considered to have killed intentionally and is not eligible for protection. 

These six cities of refuge are part of the 48 Levite cities which are set aside within the various tribal territories for the Levites who do not inherit any territory of their own.  The Levites’ main job is to serve God in the Temple, but they also teach the people throughout the land.

It is interesting, therefore, that these six cities of refuge are home to two very different sorts of people: accidental killers and Levites.  In practice, however, the cities of refuge often offer temporary refuge to intentional killers as well:

Then the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood, in accordance with these rules. And the congregation shall rescue the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he had fled, and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. (Numbers 35:24-25)

When someone has been killed, the killer flees to the city of refuge.  However, a trial takes place and the congregation, represented by the courts, will judge according to the rules listed in this chapter, whether the homicide was indeed accidental or not.  If they rule it to be accidental, then the killer will be returned to the city of refuge and will, therefore, be protected from the relative who seeks vengeance for the death of his kin.  This situation continues until the death of the high priest, at which time the killer is free to leave the city of refuge and the avenger of blood is prohibited from taking revenge.

It is interesting to note that there is full legitimacy for the avenger to take the life of the killer, even if the homicide was accidental.  While society judges the killer leniently and his life is spared, the relative is entitled to avenge the death of his relative anywhere outside of the city of refuge.

This arrangement seems odd to the modern ear but is actually quite brilliant.  When one’s loved one has died and someone is, in fact, at fault, albeit accidentally, the relative cannot help but blame him and want to avenge his loved one’s death.  The Bible does not criticize this very basic feeling; however, it limits it severely.  The avenger is not allowed to enter the city of refuge and he is not allowed to avenge the death of his relative after the death of the high priest.  While the Bible recognizes the most basic of human passions, in limiting them it is forcing the human being to control his behavior.

However, should the accidental killer leave the city of refuge, he is no longer protected. What would posses the killer from leaving the city of refuge and risking his life? Only if he were so arrogant as to not take seriously the degree of pain that he has caused to the avenger. Forcing him to remain in a city of refuge, therefore, represents a very clear statement to the killer-“you may not have intended to kill someone but as a result of your carelessness, someone lost his life. You must take this seriously. You must understand the pain of the people the victim left behind and you must be exiled from or loved ones yourself. For only in this way can you begin to understand the tragedy that you have wrought upon others.”

The presence of the Levites, therefore, serves a very important function. As teachers of the nation, they are in the best position to assist the accidental killer in understanding the tremendous harm he has caused. The city of refuge serving as a Levite city as well is, therefore, the best place for the accidental killer to contemplate his actions and to repent for his carelessness. Upon his departure from the city, he should have achieved a higher spiritual level and be ready to enter society once again. 

Shabbat Shalom From Samaria,

Sondra Baras

Director, Israel Office

4 thoughts on “Matot/Masei  (Tribes/Travel) Numbers 30:2 – 36:13”

  1. I have often mused on this part of the Torah. Having been part of the criminal justice system several years ago, this stimulates further interest in the search for genuine justice. That is the question!! what is genuine justice? I do not think we have justice effectively enough in the west. It is slip shod and falls between retribution for the offence and consideration for ‘rehabilitating’ the offender. Personally, I see the city of refuge as a good answer, but one that requires a different societal culture to what we have in the west. There is no respect for the Priest of the Levite equivalent right now, and a continually reduced sense of responsibility taken by the offender for his offence. The ‘state’ takes charge of the issue of offence response and, between everyone makes a mess of it. Before we could ever emulate that system of refuge cities, there would need to be a massive cultural shift in favour of a great Judeo-Christian spiritual dimension. Only then could we respond as effectively to the murder offence as this refuge city system suggests is the ideal. Interesting study!

  2. Shabbat Shalom Aleichem! You must understand the pain of the people the victim left behind and you must be exiled from or loved ones yourself. For only in this way can you begin to understand the tragedy that you have wrought upon others.”

    This year when we come to this parasha, I am reminded of Cain being banish from his family and the Father’s mark of mercy, live and grace on him that kept others from taking revenge even though Cain intentionally harmed his brother Abel, maybe not intentionally killed because as of yet, killing by striking had not taken place, except maybe with sacrificing an animal.

  3. I find the issue regarding Reuben and Gad of interest. Also, at the end of the book of Joshua, there is record that Reuben, Gad and half tribe of Manasseh built an alter of their own with the territory they had possessed east of Jordan. This caused some anxiety and Phineas had to go to sort it out! It is also of note that when the land of Israel started to be diminished that it was Reuben and Gad who first lost their land. There is a warning here: once we settle for ‘less’, then that is what we will get. G-d has clearly kept the Jews in order to restore their land to them (Anyone who does not ‘get’ this needs their heads tested!!). Israel has, apparently never been in the full possession of all the land allotted to them. Yet they have returned. As Christians and Jews, we both need to believe G-d’s Word to us that will vindicate our faith totally, and not settle for ‘less’


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