Torah Talk on Matot-Masei 5779
This week we read the double Torah portions of Matot and Masei, the last sections of the book of Numbers, Bamidbar. Both portions teach an important message about the centrality of Jewish family values, but they do so in quite different ways.
The setting for these final parshiyot in Numbers is the border of the Promised Land, as the Israelites approach Canaan for a second time, after their forty-year sojourn in the Wilderness of Sinai. As the tribes gather to enter the land, two of the tribes, Reuben and Gad, make a strange request of Moses: “We like the land we are traveling through now, here”—on the East Bank of the Jordan, in what is today the country of Jordan, long before Arab peoples moved into the Middle East.
The leaders of Reuben and Gad say, “Let us stay here and build sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children.” Moses agrees, but in curiously interesting language. First, he tells them, build towns for your children, then build sheepfolds for your flocks.
The message is clear: our families come first, our professions and income second. It is a human message, and one that we need to relearn in every generation. Put family first.
Then, in the very last section of Numbers, called Masei, an important, and unusual, institution is created, the city of refuge. In the days before police forces and criminal courts were common, justice in cases of manslaughter or murder was accomplished by the family of the victim. Vigilante action was the normal means to address the moral and social disruption created by a killing. If you killed someone, intentionally or accidentally, or even if the family of a person who was killed just thought you had committed the killing, you would likely be killed by their kinsmen.
Which meant that if you were involved in such a terrible situation you had very little chance to stay alive, even if the killing was accidental, even if you were completely innocent. The wheels of justice might turn for you eventually, but if you were already dead in a revenge killing it wouldn’t help much. This kind of reprisal killing also could, and did, lead to cycles of revenge, the sort of blood feuds that Mark Twain described about the Hatfields and the McCoys several millennia later, the kind of clan murder-revenge cycles that take place even today in the Palestinian Arab towns of the West Bank and Gaza.
To preclude this social disaster, the Torah portion of Masey provides for six cities of refuge in and around the Land of Israel. No person who enters these cities may be executed without a fair trial. Being present in the city of refuge is a kind of protection, the guarantee of due process that has become central in modern law but was mostly absent throughout human history.
Yet the Torah established that principle some 3000 years ago. Whether it did so to protect innocents accused of murder or simply to keep families from falling into cycles of murder and revenge we don’t know. But we do know that the Torah teaches us in this very different way that the most basic unit of society must be nurtured, maintained, and protected, and its positive values strengthened, even in the most trying situations.
A great message still.