Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Itinerary of the 40 year journey of the Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land; Rules of Occupation: driving out the pagan inhabitants and employing a lottery for distributing the land; Boundaries of the land of Canaan; New leadership; Cities for the Levites; Cities of refuge for accidental murder; Temporary requirement (prior to occupation of the Land) for women to marry within their Tribe.
Why the need for a 40- Pasuk desert travelogue?
In her Studies in Bamidbar, Nechama Leibowitz surveys some of possible answers.
Rashi opines that the travel detail publicizes Hashem’s compassion in that He did not allow the Jews to wander nonstop for 40 years. On the contrary, they were able to rest at each of the 42 stages, for extended periods of time at some. Rashi also quotes the Midrash Tanchumah that compares the Jews’ travels to a trip a King makes to find a cure for his ailing son. When he returns, the King enumerates each of the places on the trip. Here Hashem asks Moshe to recall each of the places where the Jews provoked Him to anger, but at the end Hashem kept His promise.
The Be’er Yitzchak super commentary on Rashi points to the historical continuity that this record provides for the Jews when they are settled in their Homeland. Reading the text evokes the memory of the sufferings that existed on the way to achieving the goal of achieving a Homeland.
Rambam focuses on the accuracy of the Jewish history that the text provides. The Jews did not, as some would have it, blunder helplessly in the desert. On the contrary, they were guided by Hashem who manifest His presence in an overhead cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to show them the way.
Sforno points out that while it is true that the Jews were rebellious and grumbling during their desert traveling, it is also true that they without questioning and without knowing where they were headed chose to “follow Him through the wilderness that was not sown”
On Auray Miklat (Cities of Refuge)
The Torah states that when the Jews cross the Jordan River into the Land of Canaan they are to “designate towns that shall serve you as Refuge cities to which a murderer who killed a person accidentally can flee”. The Hebrew word MIKLAT connotes clutching, absorption, retention.
The refuge is available to unintentional slayers (not premeditated murderers); the Blood Avenger (family member seeking to avenge the death of the family member) can kill the individual if he is found outside the Refuge City); the inhabitant is free to leave upon the death of the High Priest.
What the purpose of these cities is a matter of lively discussion. Rav B.S. Jacobson in his Meditations on the Torah cites a number of views.
Some maintain it is a protective measure to protect the person from the Blood Avenger. Rambam asserts that we want to calm the excited bloodthirstiness of the Blood Avenger by keeping the individual out of his sight. Others think that it is a punitive measure; one who has caused the death of another human being even by accident must experience Exile, separated from family and friends, a kind of Social Death. A third school of thought maintains that it is an expiatory measure.
Rav Hirsch expands on this last approach and concludes that it is a chance for the individual to redeem himself from the burden of guilt that weighs on him. The city’s citizens are obligated to attend to his spiritual and cultural needs. The surrounding Levites, being of a spiritual nature, will know how to educate him and help him to become a better person when he leaves than when he arrived.
Shadal points us to the historic context of earlier generations when it was considered the sacred obligation of a family member to avenge the death by murder of a fellow family member. With the creation of a judicial system it became possible to calm the avenger with the prospect of Justice being meted out by the Courts (Beis Din). But this won’t work in the case of accidental murderer because he will be constantly “in the face” of the Avenger, seemingly getting off scot- free. The Avenger would feel a lack of love because of (or guilt over) his inability to Avenge the death of the family member. The Torah balanced these opposing drives by relocating the manslayer to a protected Refuge city, but also permitting the Avenger the chance for vengeance should the manslayer leave the city of Refuge.
It is interesting to note that the Rambam maintains that in the Messianic times the cities of Refuge will be re-established on a more extensive basis.
Why is the length of stay tied to the death of the High Priest?
Rambam offers the psychological analysis that the death of the High Priest would prompt people—including the Blood Avenger—to consider death and its inevitability and the suffering it brings. Upon contemplating this, the would-be Avenger may then no longer feel the need to be a Blood Avenger.
Isaac Erama thinks that since the Cities of Refuge came under the Administration of the High Priest, his death may be a kind of amnesty.
Why is the topic presented here at the very end of the Sefer Bamidbar?
The Jewish people, having engaged in some ferocious battles east of the Jordan River, are on the verge of entering the Promised Land to create a society and life built the ethics of the Torah. There would be additional fighting and killing in the course of capturing Eretz Canaan. At this juncture, with the (necessary) killings in battles of the past and expected in the future, perhaps it was the Torah’s intent to draw attention to the peacetime horror of killing a fellow human being, even unintentionally. There would be the desire for Revenge, there would be guilt; there would be a social death.
The Torah refers to the perpetrator of unplanned murder as a Rotzaich, a murderer. On some deep unconscious level even the accidental killing may have traces of premeditation. Perhaps the Torah is sensitizing us to the need to be super careful in our behavior, for which we and we alone are responsible. We are to make the extra effort to be sure that our actions cause no harm. For example, the woodchopper would be best advised to make sure that the head and handle of the axe are attached firmly—and to check again that there is no one in the vicinity when he begins his wood chopping.
In this Parsha the Torah demands that the Jewish people uproot all traces of paganism and idolatry in the Land of Canaan. It now demands that we pay attention to our behavior. The Afikomen is eaten last at the Seder so that its taste (i.e., its message) stays with us. Perhaps the same idea is applicable here. The topics discussed in the Parsha are of such importance that the Torah presents them last so that their “taste” stays with us (i.e., critical importance of avoiding both idolatry and even “accidental” bloodshed).
Rabbi H.L. Berenholz
Last edit: 8 years 6 months ago by Heshy Berenholz. Reason: improving layout