Parshat Massei: Land of Reward and Punishment
Dave Gordon - Saturday, 2 August, 2008
God pre-emptively avoids challenges over property, and possible civil
war, by discussing the boundaries of Israel, how the land is divided
among the tribes, and the cities of refuge. He also cautions the
Israelites that if they do not expunge, in one way or another, the
inhabitants of the Land along with their idols, those people will be a
thorn in the side of Israel. This lesson will be lost throughout Jewish
history, and will repeat itself many times over the course of three
Along the vein of removing people from the land, this portion
discusses how to deal with someone who has inadvertently taken
The Israelites are commanded to create six cities of refuge, places
where an individual must live if they accidentally kill somebody, and
must remain until the death of the serving High Priest. (The killer was
technically free to leave, but by risk of the victimís kin given the
right to hunt them down.)
It seems a particularly arbitrary length of a sentence -- but it is
precisely the randomness of his punishment that fits the crime.
Someoneís life was cut short in a random way (random, at least, to our
limited, human perception). The victim just happened to be in the wrong
place at the wrong time. It stands to reason that the killerís fate
would be determined by chance too.
A good question that comes up is whether it would be less just if the
accidental killing took place when the high priest was old, presumably
with fewer years left to live. What if the killer were sentenced a day
before the death of the High Priest? There is a certain leap of faith
here: in the same way that the High Priest is the Earthly
representative of the spirit of God, the symbolism reminds us that life
and death are ultimately in the hands of God, and His judgments are
innately good, even if we perceive them to be unfair.
So too, the High Priest is the community's pipeline of atonement, as
through his actions in the Temple that a person's sins, or the
community's sins, are wiped clean. The Priest, the ultimate symbol of
atonement, is aptly used.
In this parsha, too, God is unequivocal about the death penalty for
murder Ė the only imperative in the Torah that is repeated in each of
the five books.
After parceling out the land and the cities of refuge, the Israelites
stand across the Jordan, ready to enter the Promised Land. Moshe
describes an overview of some of the trek through the desert, a journey
fraught with war, plagues, complaints, rebellion, an attempted coup,
lack of water, and countless demonstrations of Godís power. Itís as if
to say to Bene Israel: ďYouíve come this far, so letís not lose sight
of our collective experiences, and what this is all for!Ē
Rashi writes that the Israelites needed to be reminded of the good and
the bad that had happened to them so that they will have perspective
when they reach the Promised Land. It is a strange paradox: they saw
firsthand miracles and Godís powers. Yet, they often strayed, and
needed to be reminded from whence they came.
This is in contrast to the pre-Exodus Israelites. They were able to
maintain their peoplehood and faith so successfully while slaves in
Egypt, and onward, by three key things: keeping their Hebrew language,
their Hebrew names, and keeping true to their customs. They worked
incredibly hard to sustain their identities in the harshest of
conditions. This, perhaps, is an answer to the age-old question of why
today we donít see ďmajorĒ miracles. The Israelites who did see Godís
greatest miracles became jaded, rebellious, and spoiled.