Torah Readings for Saturday, July 26, 2014
Masay(33:1-36:13) Bamidbar (Numbers)
Masay is the tenth and final sedrah in Bamidbar. The sedrah takes its name from the second Hebrew word in the first verse of the portion, “These are the journeys (Masay) of the Children of Israel.” Masay may be divided into three sections - The Travelogue, Political and Social Institutions in the Promised Land, and The Conclusion. Masay marks the end of Bamidbar. It marks the end of the Israelites’ time in Bamidbar, in the Wilderness. It also marks the end of the narrative of the Torah. As you know from having read Devarim, the death of Moshe is the only additional piece of the story of the Israelites’ stay in the Wilderness that is not covered in Bamidbar. Masay should be studied with this sense of journeys in mind if we are to grasp its full meaning.
The Travelogue (33:1-49) God commands Moshe to make a written record of the journeys through the Wilderness starting with the departure from Egypt and finishing with the encampment on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from the Promised Land. The text lists forty-two way stations or names forty-two journeys depending up which commentator you read. Editors of various Chumashim all cite Rashi who contends that when you subtract the movement during the first and last years, there were only twenty different encampments during the remaining thirty-eight years. This would indicate that there was really only a limited amount of travel by the ancient Israelites and that they spent a fairly long period of time in one spot. This more sedentary view of things would certainly answer some of the earlier questions about how the Levites and Kohanim were able to pack and move the Tabernacle without any difficulty. The text itself is quite spare, giving only the names of the stopping places. It doesn’t mention the events that occurred at any of them such as the giving of the Ten Commandments, the appearance of Manna or the episode of the spies. This would indicate that the names were well known to the reader and that the reader connected these places with certain historic events. It would be like mentioning
Harbor or . Everybody knows without further explanation
that one marked the start of World War II for the Normandy and the other is
D-Day, the invasion of United States Europe. Only when it comes to the mention of the stop
at does the text describe the events
connected with a particular place. In
this case it is the death of Aaron and the meeting with the king of Mount Hor . So far, I have not found an explanation for
this apparent anomaly. Yes, Aaron was a
great man and his death is worth mentioning.
But why mention the king of Arad
and not manna or the Ten Commandments? Arad
Political and Social Institutions in the Promised Land (33:50-35:34) Having dispensed with the history lesson the sedrah now turns to political and social institutions to be adopted once the Israelites cross into the Promised Land. First, Moshe describes the manner in which the land is to be conquered and divided (33:50-56). The Israelites are to drive out the indigenous population and destroy their places of worship. In a world of idol worshippers, the
will be the one place where there is no idolatry. Here, only God will be worshipped in the
manner He has commanded. If the
Israelites fail to do this, the inhabitants will harass the Israelites and God
will add His own punishment for good measure.
There are those who think this portion was inserted at later time to
explain the misery that befell the Israelites during the time of the Judges
and/or to justify the wars waged by Saul and David. Moshe announces that placement of the tribal
lands will be by lot but the size of the allotment will be based on the
population of the tribe. The Torah then
provides us with the boundaries of the land.
It is important to mark these boundaries now because there are many laws
that only apply to Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel
(34:1-15). Also, the tribal
apportionments, with the exception of those in Trans Jordan, will occur within
this landmass. The different Chumashim
provide maps based on the description provided.
Unfortunately, there is some confusion about some of the boundaries
since we are not sure where all of these places are. This is especially true when it comes to fixing
the northern border because there seems to be some controversy as to where Land of Israel
is located. We do know one thing for
sure. The Mount Hor
mentioned here is not the same as the Mount Hor
mentioned in connection with the death of Aaron. Since the Torah specifically mentions Mount Hor Canaan, the author may have been trying to describe the when it was an eastern province
or satrap of the Egyptians in the twelfth or thirteenth century. We do recognize the broad outlines including
the land of Canaan Mediterranean on the west, the Negev to the south and the Jordan
River and Dead Sea to the
east. Having taken care of the land for
the other tribes, Moshe now turns to the landless tribe of Levi (35:1-15). The Levites may not own land. One commentator says the decision to keep the
Levites landless was based on the experience in . There, the Priestly Class was a major
landowner and sided with the wealthy over the common people. By keeping them landless, the Levites should
be a force for morality favoring neither the rich over the poor or vice versa. But the Levites had to live some place so
they are assigned forty-eight cities in which to live. The Torah goes into some detail describing
their land allotment. The Stone
Chumash provides three detailed sketches of the holdings based on the
interpretations of Rashi, Ramban (Nachmanides) and Rambam (Maimonides). Six of these cities were of a special
character. They were Cities of
Refuge. Three were to be on the east
bank of the Egypt ,
where the two and one half tribes had settled. The other three were to be on the western bank
of the Jordan
in the Promised Land. The cities served
two purposes. They provided a place of
sanctuary for somebody who had taken a life but whose guilt or innocence had
not been determined by a court of law.
They also provided a place of sanctuary for one whom the courts had
decided was guilty of taking a life but not in a manner that warranted the
death penalty. This second category of
miscreants was to remain confined until the death of the Kohein Gadol. The Cities of Refuge were established to put
an end to blood feuds. Having recognized
that there are different circumstances under which one might take a life, the
Torah goes into great detail to describe each of them and the penalty attached
thereto (35:16-34). While the Torah
allows for the death penalty, it is very scrupulous in how it should be
applied. At the same time, the Torah
recognizes that human life is a gift from God and one may not buy his or her
way out the punishment for killing.
Unlike the concept of monetary compensation that was attached to the
“Eye for an eye” commands, the Israelites are precluded from accepting “ransom”
from convicted murders. Additionally,
the Israelites could not accept “ransom” from one who had been confined to a
City of Jordan . Why so much law? Why so many rules? The spilling of blood “pollutes the
land.” The Land of Israel is God’s
special place and He would not tolerate such pollution. Refuge
Conclusion (36:1-13) We are at the end of Masay. We are at the end of Bamidbar. We are at the end of a journey that started with the Exodus and finds the Israelites poised to conquer the Promised Land. So what is the momentous conclusion to these events? There is no
ending. Instead we are faced with what
appears to be a Biblical afterthought; a piece of unfinished business from a
previous sedrah. We read about a
continuation of the story of the five daughters of Tzlaphchad. Remember; they were the women who went to
Moshe and complained that the laws of inheritance were unfair because they
disinherited men who had no sons. So
Moshe consulted with God and re-shaped the laws of inheritance to take into
consideration a variety of contingencies, including the one they had brought to
his attention. The five daughters went
away happy because now they would have a portion in the Promised Land. At the end of this sedrah, the leaders of the
tribe of Manasseh approach Moshe to point out a problem with these
modifications in the inheritance laws. (Manasseh
is the tribe of Tzlaphchad.) If the
daughters marry men outside of the tribe, the tribes of their husbands will
inherit the land and the tribal portion of Manasseh will lose its territorial
integrity. It is interesting to note
that this concern is being expressed by one of the tribes that is settling east
of the Jordan; one of the tribes Moshe had previously accused of turning its
back on its fellow Israelites and the Promised Land. This is another one of those bothersome
points for which I cannot find any commentary.
Moshe sees their point and adds yet another addendum to the inheritance
laws. Women who inherit from their
fathers must marry somebody from with their own tribe. This will ensure territorial integrity. But such women are to “be wives to whomever
is good in their eyes.” (36:6) In other
words, they get to choose whom they are going to marry and they may not have a
mate thrust upon them. The question
still hangs in the air. How can we end
such momentous events with such a minor issue?
For a possible explanation, see Themes below. Matot ends with a final statement that what
we have read are all of the laws given by God through Moshe to the Israelites
since they encamped at the plains of Moab.
These would be all of the laws starting with the sedrah of Balak.
408. The commandment to assign cities to Levites in which to live (35:2).
409. The commandment that murderers not be executed before they stand trial and are convicted (35:12).
410. The obligation to confine inadvertent manslayers to a city of refuge until the death of the Kohein Gadol (35:25).
411. The requirement that it takes the testimony of two witnesses to convict and execute an alleged murder (35:30).
412. The prohibition against accepting money from a murderer to save him or her from a death sentence (35:31).
413. The prohibition against accepting money from an inadvertent manslayer to free him or her from banishment to a city of refuge (35:32).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
The List of Resting PlacesThe sedrah provides a detailed list of places where the Israelites stopped during their wanderings in the desert. Some critics claim that since these places cannot be found, the list is proof that the Torah is something less than what traditionalists claim it to be. Oddly enough, the Rambam claimed that God wanted all of the places written down along with the miracles that occurred at those places so that future generations would not doubt the authenticity of the events described. Who has the better of the argument, Rambam or some modern critics? This sounds like another question to consider as we continue our annual wanderings through the Torah.
Wars of ExterminationThe war against the Midianites and the commands about conquering the
TheThe Torah contains different geographic descriptions of the
Land of Israel
Non-imperialAlexander’s Empire stretched from
Now consider the fate of the Israelites. As “God’s chosen people,” some might think that their domain would include the entire planet or at least some large, bountiful portion, thereof. You would think that the Israelites would do at least as well as those relying on the military. Instead, the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent Lord of the Universe gave His people a small, very well defined slice of the earth. What is the meaning of this apparently disproportionate distribution of land? First, God is the God for all people which means everybody is entitled to a portion of land in this world. Second, the Israelites were chosen to receive and practice the law of God. They needed enough space to do this, but they did not need some immense imperial domain. Third, the land holdings that were the basis for these empires have all disappeared. Yet the basis of the Jewish greatness, the teachings of the Lord are timeless and with us today as they were with our forefathers on the plains of
The Daughters of TzlaphchadOne of the messages of Bamidbar has to do with change. The Israelites literally changed from a nation of ex-slaves to a nation of free people ready to play their role in the next act of history. The Israelites took the lofty words of Sinai and began to make them a part of daily life. The various rebellions against Moshe were about change - the wrong kind of change. For example Korach did not come to Moshe to discuss the matter of leadership. Instead, he set himself up to replace Moshe and, in effect, to supplant the will of God. The Daughters of Tzlaphchad showed the right way to seek change. (Once again, leave it to the women to show the way.) They did not like the law. But they did not condemn it or ignore it. Instead they approached Moshe and made their case. Moshe then found a way to modify the law to meet their needs without violating the original intent of the law. The request for further refinement by the leaders of Manasseh is a fitting way to end the journey of change. They did not like the law. But like the daughters, they did not condemn it or ignore it. They came to Moshe, made their case and he refined the law even further. Change is a necessary part of Judaism. It is our ability to change in an effective manner that has kept us around for four thousand years. Effective changes, as we can see from the Daughters of Tzlaphchad, includes being aware of the evolving world in which we live, knowing what the existing rules and traditions are and having leaders who are wise enough to know how to harmonize the two. Maybe this is why Jews study this on an annual basis. Maybe this is why we have made the journey through the Torah each year just as our ancestors journeyed through the Wilderness.
Roots: Linguistics Leads to LearningThe book we have finished reading is called Bamidbar in Hebrew. Hebrew is a language of roots, prefixes and suffixes. In this case “Ba” is a prefix meaning “in the.” In this case, the Hebrew word “midbar’ is translated as “wilderness” or “desert.” Citing Maimonides, Susan Afterman reminds us that in Hebrew “midbar” is spelled mem, dalet, beth, resh. The Hebrew word for speech, utterance, or talk is also spelled mem, dalet, beth, resh. This linguistic anomaly offers a variety of philosophic possibilities. It was in the Wilderness that the Israelites first heard the speech of God. Elijah went to the Wilderness where he ultimately heard the speech of God - in the still small voice. People go into the Wilderness or Desert to seek quiet and solitude. In the peace and quiet of the Wilderness they are able to talk with themselves and hear their own speech. At the same time they hope that God will talk to them and that they will be able to hear His Divine utterances.
Ending on the Mundane or the Manageable?After all of the amazing events that we have read about from the time the Jewish people left Egypt until their arrival on the banks of the Jordan, the reading seems to end on what some would say is a mundane matter - the distribution of land. Possibly it is a reminder that only God can create the majesty of Sinai, manna or talking Donkey. But He has left it up to us to manage our daily affairs, the minutia of life. How we choose to earn and share our livelihood (remember, in those days land was the source of one’s livelihood) is a matter that each of us can control. So in the end, these books remind us that God has left us quite a bit to manage and how we manage will be the measure of the final judgment.
“Chazak! Chazak! Venischazeik! Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!”
HaftarahJeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4 (Ashkenazim)
Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4; 4:1-2 (Sephardim and Chabad)
The Man: “Jeremiah began to prophesy in
years after the death of Isaiah. More is
known about his life and teachings than about any other prophet, since the book
of Jeremiah contains a mass of historical and biographical material. He was gentle and sensitive. He yearned for the comforts of a normal life;
yet he felt impelled to speak the truth and be ‘a man of strife and content,’
delivering messages of doom and foretelling the fall of Jerusalem .
He was often imprisoned and in danger of his life, yet he did not
flinch. He was cruelly insulted and
accused of treason by the people he loved tenderly - those whom he sought to
save. After the fall of Jerusalem in 586 before the Common Era, those
who fled the wrath of the Babylonian conqueror forcibly took him into Jerusalem . Tradition has it that Nebuchadnezzar, king of Egypt , had instructed
his general to treat Jeremiah with consideration and kindness. But the prophet insisted on sharing the
hardships and tortures that were inflicted on his people. Afterwards Jeremiah was killed in Babylon , where he
had continued his fiery speeches for some time.
Jeremiah also foretold the restoration of Egypt , and those who survived the
agonies of captivity were promised a safe journey home to Israel Judea. He looked forward to a reunion of departed with the
people of Israel ,
to an in ingathering of all the exiles.
The book of Jeremiah is the longest of the prophetic books, even though
it has fourteen chapters less than Isaiah.
Jeremiah’s dictations to his faithful secretary Baruch were written down
upon a scroll of leather which the king of Judah slashed with a knife and
burned. But the prophet was not easily
discouraged. He ordered his scribe to
take another scroll and write therein all the words of the book which he had
burned.” (From A Treasury of Judaism
by Philip Birnbaum) I am sorry if you
feel as if I have taken the coward’s way out by giving you this long quote from
Birnbaum. I have written several
summaries about Jeremiah and was afraid that I would start repeating
myself. On the other hand, Jeremiah is
entitled to proper treatment and you are entitled to a full measure each week. Judah
The Message: This haftarah is example of why Jeremiah was so unpopular with his contemporaries and held in such high regard by succeeding generations. The same magnificent language which makes us pause and consider our own shortcomings angered the original audience. After all, his words are a stinging rebuke of the people’s behavior and promise of national destruction. A seemingly confused God asks how the Israelites can turn their back on Him after all the divine beneficence they have experienced. Once again, these words should be read aloud. For in majestic flowing tones, Jeremiah calls the people to account for their betrayal of God. His contemporaries are like a nation of “Esaus” trading their birthright, God and His Torah, for a bowl of soup i.e., idolatry and iniquity. Jeremiah has special words of disdain for the leaders of the land; the “kings…princes… (idolatrous) priests…and (false) prophets” who have allowed the Israelites to behave like “a wild donkey well acquainted with the wilderness who inhales the wind” giving in to her lusts. After castigating the people for calling a piece of wood, “my father” and venerating a piece of stone as the one “who gave birth to us” Jeremiah asks to whom they will cry out for help in times of peril. Once again, hear the majesty of the language. “So where are your gods that made you for yourself? Let them arise, if they can save you in the time of your distress; far as the number of your cities was the number of your gods, O Judah.” (-28) But even this haftarah cannot end on such a note of negativity. So the Ashkenazim (3:4) and the Sephardim and Chabad Chassidim (4:1-2) add additional words of consolation. The prophet reminds the people that all they have to do is return to the ways of the Lord and not go astray again to ensure their own redemption and to lead the other nations to the blessings of God.
Theme-Link: This haftarah is the second of the Three Haftarot of Rebuke. The first of the rebukes ends with chapter 2, verse 3 and this haftarah starts with chapter 2, verse 4. Thus the second haftarah literally as well as thematically picks up where the first haftarah left off. The people have not only forsaken God. They have forsaken His teachings, the Torah, as well. As the walls of Jerusalem were being breached by the Babylonians, Jeremiah was telling the people that the national calamity was their fault. In a post-Auschwitz world, we must look for other causes of the calamities that have befallen our people in modern times. This might prove a fitting topic for a discussion when people gather to observe Tisha B’Av.
Copyright; July, 2014; Mitchell A. Levin