"The period of wanderings may be seen as a trial of faith, and … there emerges the vision of a new nation that will take possession of the Holy Land-and do so as a holy people" (Plaut, Revised Edition, 887).
Mas'ei, means "journeys." In this case, the parashah provides a detailed account of the Israelites' forty years of journeying from Egypt to the Promised Land. They are instructed to take possession of the land, divide it proportionally between the clans, and destroy evidence of worship to other gods. Levites are given towns in each region, which are also to serve as cities of refuge. Although (see Parashat Pinchas) the daughters of Zelophehad were previously allowed to inherit their father's land, it is clarified that they must marry within their own tribe in order to preserve their inheritance. Once the Israelites are in the Land of Canaan, they are to establish cities of refuge across the land.
The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the killer may not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly (35:12).
The idea of arei miklat, or "cities of shelter," was a ground-breaking concept in the times of our ancestors. For a wide variety of personal injuries and death, the people of the Ancient Near East were avenged by their next of kin. The word go'el, or "avenger," in our text literally means, "redeemer," indicating the cultural necessity to defend a sense of honor within the clan. God commands that the Israelites implement a justice system that protects its citizens and allows for fair judgment by uninvolved and neutral parties. The elders of the cities of refuge allow the killer to rest before trial. Those found guilty of unintentional homicide were given continued protection and asylum.
Although the cities were in place to protect the accidental killer, they also served to isolate them. Rabbi Gunter Plaut asserts that, "…in some ways [the] most important purpose was to contain and isolate the sin that had been committed, for killing was understood to contaminate the community... The slaying of a human being, though it occurred without evil intent, was a moral injury to the total community" (Revised Edition, 1131). This nuanced understanding requires us to consider multiple perspectives for Biblical institutions. Rather than accept the most obvious and superficial meaning, Torah endeavors to provide layers of meaning waiting only for us to uncover them.
Arei miklat were within the designated cities of the Levites, making them sanctuaries within sanctuaries. The role of the Levites as spiritual and ritual stewards was hereby extended into the ethical domain. God dwelled among the people, even those people who were isolated form each other. There was a special presence among the inhabitants living in the cities of the Levites, a reminder of God's value for every human life, even those who made grave mistakes. Although they had to be isolated from their families and everything else they knew, there was a deep understanding of the internal suffering the unintentional killer experienced.
Recognizing that the unintentional killer had to live with the pain of causing the death of another human being, Rabbi Harvey Fields describes cities of refuge as places of rebirth, "nurturing places where human beings can enjoy the company of others, pursue their talents, and grow both spiritually and intellectually" (A Torah Commentary for our Times, Vol. 3, 91). All of us need the support of God and a community. Society feels the pain of those who suffer the loss of a loved one keenly and communities reach out to support them. Rather than isolate the one who transgressed from everything holy, the cities of refuge placed him in a holy community. Rather than being imprisoned, perhaps there was an element of personal liberation or at least a sense of safety in the mind of one living in a city of refuge. In order to stop the cycle of violence and keep the number of victims to a minimum, this system of cities of refuge sought to create a space of reflection, healing, and ultimately growth in the presence of God.
- What are the things you do to make up for something you do wrong unintentionally?
- What does it feel like to make a mistake that ends up affecting other people in a negative way? What would be the purpose of being punished, even for a mistake?
- The Torah teaches us this week about a place for people who accidentally committed terrible crimes to be separated from the community. When you hurt someone, even accidentally, have you ever been sent away from the group or taken some time out yourself? How does this time alone help you? What do you think about? Have you ever prayed to God in times like this?
For Further Learning
Cities of refuge isolated criminals and limited people from taking revenge. How does our society today limit revenge, and in what ways does it allow revenge? For example, you can search the National Alert Registry online to find out about registered sex offenders who may be living in your neighborhood. What are the pros and cons of a system such as this, in light of our parashah?
Mas'-ei, Numbers 33:1-36:13
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,222-1,250; Revised Edition, pp. 1,117-1,133;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,013-1,036