As you read and watch, some ideas to consider…
- How do you reconcile difficult passages in Torah with your concepts of moral behavior?
- What do you think about creating physical spaces to protect those who have committed some awful wrong (like manslaughter)? What should those spaces be like? What would a contemporary city of refuge look like?
Here we are already, at the last chapters of the book of Bemidbar/In the Wilderness/Numbers. Wow… that was a quick trip! It took the Israelites 40 years of wandering and took us just 10 Sabbaths of reading about their journey. Remember back in May when we started this desert trek?
Back then I mentioned that the opening chapters of Bemidbar contain several recurring themes, and that one of them is the theme of traveling and zig-zagging. We wander between texts that read like a triptych or map and texts that have a story or narrative to offer. In these final chapters we have a lot of GPS-like information (see Numbers 33:5-37 — and more!). All the place names! All of the camping sites! Sounds like an extended article in the New York Times Sunday Travel section.
Please note that this Shabbat we read a double portion: Mattot and Masei. The G-dcast for Mattot is done rap-style and worth your time to find out more about the difficulties in dividing up the Land of Canaan according to what each tribe desired.
When we get to chapter 34, we read about the boundaries of the map of the Land of Canaan which the Israelites are about to inherit.
Our storyteller this week focuses on how the Land is going to be divided up among the tribes; she paints a picture of a master plan for a utopian society based on the way land is to be used. She begins with the idea that every tribe will have its own specified section, except for the tribe of Levi — and they will receive their allotment as donations from the other tribes. This is to be in exchange for what the Levites will provide to the entire Israelite nation — leadership and role modeling — demonstrating good ethics, wisdom, teaching, and guidance.
While the idea of dividing up the land and giving the Levites their own cities is central to these last chapters of this 4th book of the Torah, there are a number of other important, even essential ideas that I want to highlight.
- The idea of “cities of refuge.” You can read about them in chapter 35, verse 6 and verses 9-13. Basically there are designated places where those who have killed someone unintentionally (perhaps we would call this manslaughter) are offered a safe place, protected from those presumably seeking retribution, such as the kinsmen of the victim. The cities of refuge could be used by both Israelites and resident aliens who lived in the land. The Torah goes on to enumerate what circumstances would qualify to label a killing “unintentional,” or who merits the label “manslayer” instead of “murderer,” therefore deserving of protection in a city of refuge. Fascinating distinctions are being made here about the consequences of taking someone’s life. The rabbis of the Talmud were also fascinated by these distinctions, and constructed pages and pages of discussion on these verses. For example, chapter 35 verse 30: “If anyone kills a person, the manslayer may only be executed on the evidence of witnesses; the testimony of a single witness against a person shall not suffice for a sentence of death.”
From this, the rabbis riffed on how many witnesses (at least 2), who must be deposed separately (so as not to be influenced by the testimony of each other), and who must also be eye-witnesses to the event in question. Also, the rabbis concluded that the witnesses needed to have heard the killer being told (verbally) about the laws concerning murder, so that he would be fully aware of the consequences of his actions. There are literally dozens of exceptions in a capital case, so much so that by the time of the Talmud, laws about the cities of refuge are supplanted and made even more stringent, opposing simple and ancient judicially-imposed laws of retribution, such as: you kill someone, we will put you to death…. no extenuating circumstances count.
- Expropriation of land belonging to others. This one is difficult for many of us to accept. When I read chapter 33 verses 50-56, I start to cringe. Why? Well, it seems that God is commanding the Israelites to utterly wipe out the indigenous people of the land that they are about to enter — the Land of Milk and Honey, the Land of Canaan, the Land of Israel, promised way back when to Abraham and Sarah. “You shall dispossess all the inhabitants…you shall destroy all their figured objects and molten images; you shall demolish all their cult places….”
For many, this exhortation sounds completely unethical and makes us wonder how the forward-thinking idea behind the cities of refuge (commanded by a God who tells us to always pursue justice) can stand side by side with a commandment to dispossess another people from the land on which they live. Does the success of one nation depend on the subjugation of another? What does it mean to favor one people with a “promised” land when others will need to be driven out of their homes, or worse? How are we to understand this?
The Book of Bemidbar ends with a very good wrap-up sentence, chapter 36 verse 13:
These are the commandments and regulations that the Lord enjoined upon the Israelites, through Moses, on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho.
Here is a post-script, letting us know that the Israelites are about to enter the Land of Israel and are poised at the mountains, at the moment that the wandering is over.
Next week we start the last book of the Five Books of Moses, Devarim (Hebrew for “(These Are The) Words”, and usually translated to the (Greek) Deuteronomy). See you at the top of the mountain!