Parashat Matot – Mas’ei Numbers 33:50 to 35:13

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashiot. This drash was delivered August 6, 2016 by Bonnie G. Lindauer

We have a double Torah portion today: Parashot Mattot and Mass’ei.  Etz Chaim footnotes explain that these final chapters inaugurate a new phase in the history of ancient Israel: the settlement period when they began to find permanent homes for themselves.  Since our triennial cycle reading is only from Masei, I’ll briefly summarize what we missed in Parashah Mattot. 

It begins with a series of regulations emphasizing the importance of oaths and vows, making special provision for oaths and vows that women make. Then a description of the battle against Midian follows with details about how to purify soldiers and captives before they can enter the camp. Next is a request by two of the tribes —Gad and Reuben — to settle outside of the designated borders of the Promised Land because they feel it’s better grazing land.  These two tribes and the half-tribe of Manasseh are the only ones living outside of Canaan.

Just prior to today’s reading in Parashat Masei is a lengthy record of the places the Israelites have been over the 40 years of travel and detours. The section we read today picks up with God’s instructions to Moses about the conquest of Canaan and instructions pertaining to the division, settlement, and inheritance of land among the tribes. The boundaries of Israel are described and the 6 special cities of refuge for unintentional manslayers are discussed in some detail. Parashat Masei ends with God’s decision about  the inheritance of women, based on the situation of the daughers of Zelophehad — which is that in order to protect their inheritance they must marry within their tribe.

I am so impressed and amazed at the wisdom embodied in the laws of the six cities of refuge that I’ve decided to offer a drash about these cities and the importance of intention in our lives. These cities are yet another example of Israel’s responsibility to carry out social justice, rather than allow the basic instinct for personal revenge. I credit some of my comments that follow to the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks from the Sacks web Archives and Rabbi Neil J. Loevinger from My Jewish Learning.

First, let’s review the details surrounding these cities of refuge. God commanded Moses to assign from the lands apportioned to the 12 tribes, 48 towns for the Levites, including some surrounding pasture land. Among these 48 cities God commanded six for refuge: three cities to the east of the Jordan and three within the land of Israel itself. There, people who had committed homicide could flee and find protection until their case was heard by a court of law. If they were found guilty of murder they were sentenced to death. If found innocent because the death happened by accident or inadvertently, with neither intention nor malice – then they were to stay in the city of refuge “until the death of the High priest.”  I can imagine how difficult it must have been to prove the lack of intention or malice, but we do know that more than one witness was required to give testimony.  Within the walls, the manslayer was protected by law against any revenge or additional punishment. But if the person left the city of refuge, the deceased’s relative could kill him and not face punishment.  In this way, the Torah makes clear a distinction between deliberate murder and unintentional manslaughter.  As we know, contemporary American law makes a similar distinction, mandating a different degree of severity to correspond to the different levels of responsibility due to intention and circumstance.

Were these cities of asylum unique in ancient times?  We learn from footnotes in Etz Chaim that the notion of a place of asylum was not unique to the Torah. Other law codes of the ancient Near East had places of asylum and even allowed deliberate murderers access to them as well as allowed offering monetary payments for some types of killing. For example, ancient Greece, Sumer, and Phoenecia permitted a murderer to flee to a local shrine and gain protection at the altar of the local deity. Whether or not the death had been intended was irrelevant to the power of the shrine to protect the murderer. But the Israelites did not accept monetary payments for the loss of life and required  intentional murderers to pay with their lives. 

Also diverging from other ancient law codes, the Torah does not use the status of the victim to determine the severity of punishment. Murdering a free man, woman, child, slave, or foreigner all resulted in the same penalty. Since all human beings reflect God’s image, all people deserve equal protection and possess equal worth.

Other ancient Near Eastern peoples also did not seem to share the notion of how murder pollutes the land.  As we read in Numbers 35:13 “You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it”  Etz Chaim’s footnote on p. 965 explains further that the land becomes polluted so that neither God nor Israel can abide there.  As Rabbi Sacks wrote, “Even justified acts of bloodshed, as in the case of war, still communicate impurity. A Cohen who has shed blood does not bless the people. David is told that he may not build the Temple “because you shed much blood. Death defiles.”  To our modern minds, it’s seem barbaric and contradictory to connect the killing of the original murderer to the unpolluting  of the land.

The laws and procedures for being protected in these cities of refuge are extraordinary and demonstrate such wise compassion and a social justice system far in advance of other cultures.  As Rabbi Sacks wrote,
   “The Torah inserts one vital element between the killer and the victim’s family: the principle of justice. There must be no direct act of revenge. The killer must be protected until his case has been heard in a court of law. If found guilty, he must pay the price. If found innocent, he must be given refuge. This single act turns revenge into retribution. This makes all the difference…and is what was introduced into civilization by the law of the cities of refuge, allowing retribution to take the place of revenge, and justice the place of retaliation.”

He continues by explaining how the cities of refuge functioned as both a place of protection but also a form of punishment because exile was commonly used as a form of punishment.  However, Maimonides emphasizes their primary purpose as protection.  He comments  in The Guide for the Perplexed, “The reason the man goes into exile in a city of refuge is to allow the passions of the relative of the victim, the blood-redeemer, to cool. The exile stays there until the death of the High Priest, because his death creates a mood of national mourning, which dissolves the longing for revenge – for it is a natural phenomenon that we find consolation in our misfortune when the same misfortune or a greater one befalls another person. Amongst us no death causes more grief than that of the High Priest.”

Clearly, the cities of refuge served both purposes and I think locating them in the Levite towns was an ingenious solution, since the Levites served as assistants to the priests. Perhaps the fact that these cities had a special “religious” designation helped those exiled there to understand that they were not rejected by God for their actions. One could even imagine that these accidental criminals would form a kind of community and provide each other support. Connecting their freedom to the death of the High Priest was also wise, as Maimonides pointed out, because everyone would be focused on mourning his death. There’s a  touching story in the Mishnah that says that the high priest’s mother would traditionally supply clothing and food to those claiming asylum in the cities of refuge, so that these individuals would not wish for the death of her son.

Finally, I’d like to end my drash focusing on the importance of intention in our own lives.  What is extraordinary on the part of the Torah, as we learned from the cities of refuge, is the notion that inner intention determines the meaning of an action. Unique among ancient law codes, the Torah consistently maintains its emphasis on kavvanah (intention)  which manifests itself through ones concentration and focusing ones mind on the meaning of words uttered or acts performed. The areas where we traditionally are expected to demonstrate intention is in prayer, particularly the Shema and part of the Amidah, and in performing mitzvot.  I would suggest that just as important is the intention we show in our personal relationships — an intention to listen carefully and to reach out with empathy and compassion to the needs of others.  How many of us recall having said at one time or another: “Well, I didn’t mean to do that or I didn’t intend to hurt your feelings?

To help us increase positive intention in our daily lives, there’s a teaching in Mussar related to silence that I think is helpful. It states that one should try to practice considered speech — that is withholding speech long enough for a conscious decision about whether what we say could hurt or benefit another.  This practice develops intention because it encourages the speaker to focus on the meaning of his/her words as they may affect another.  Indeed, nearly everything we do in our daily lives would benefit from our being more aware and showing intention instead of mindless speech and unintentional behavior. 


Rabbi Sacks Archive. “Retribution and Revenge.”

Rabbi Neil J. Loevinger. “Cities or Sanctuaries.” My Jewish Learning.

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