The Hebrew Scriptures are not readily or easily understood by native English speakers, we post a weekly addition to regular Torah commentary. "Cutting to the Root" is intended to promote an understanding of the complexity of the Hebrew language and thereby gain a richer and deeper understanding of the Scriptures. It is our goal that these notes will teach tolerance and understanding.Please visit our web site at

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Parashat Ma'asei

Parasha: Ma'asei – Numbers 33:1 – 36:13
Haftara: Jeremiah 2:4-24; 4:1-2
Reading Date: 2nd August 2008 – 1st Av 5768

"These are the journeys of the children of Israel going out of the land of Egypt with their hosts, under the hand of Moses and Aaron. And Moses wrote their goings out according to their journeys by the commandment of YHVH; and these are their journeys according to their goings out."

These are the journeys of the children of Israel going out of the land of Mitzrayim (Egypt)... (33:1)

It would seem that there was only one journey which took the children of Israel out of Egypt--their journey from Raamses to Sukkot. The other "journeys" listed in our Parasha were between points outside of the geographical borders of Egypt. Why, then, does the Torah speak of "the journeys" -- in the plural -- "of the children of Israel going out of the land of Mitzrayim"?
Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for "Egypt," means "borders" and "narrows." Spiritually the, the journey from Egypt is a journey from the boundaries that limit us--an Exodus from the narrow straits of habit, convention and ego to the "good broad land" of the infinite potential of YHVH.
And the journey from Mitzrayim is never ending: what is expansive and uninhibited by yesterdays standards, is narrow and confining in light of the added wisdom and new possibilities of today’s situations. Thus, each of life’s "journeys" is an Exodus from the land of Mitzrayim: having transcended yesterday’s limitations, we must again journey from the Mitzrayim that our present norm represents relative to our newly-uncovered potential.(Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi)

And they journeyed from... and they camped at... (33:1-49)
Our chapter opens, "These are the journeys of the children of Israel." However, it then proceeds to recount not the journeys but the forty-two encampments at which they stopped during their sojourn in the Sinai Desert!

Yet these encampments were not ends unto themselves--only way-stations and stepping stones to advance the nation of Israel in their goal of attaining the Promised Land. So the stops themselves are referred to as "journeys".

The same is true of the journey of life. Pauses, interruptions and setbacks are an inadvertent part of a person's sojourn on earth. But when everything a person does is toward the goal of attaining the "Holy Land" -- the sanctification of the material world -- these, too, are "journeys". Ultimately, they are shown to have been the true motors of progression, each an impetus to the realization of one's mission and purpose in life. (Rabbi M. Schneerson)

Thus begins the Torah reading of Massei, the tenth and last parasha in the Book of Numbers.
The parasha goes on to recount the 42 stations from the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land:

"Speak to the children of Israel," says YHVH to Moses, "and say to them:"
When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you; and you shall destroy all their figured pavements, and destroy all their molten images, and devastate all their high places.

And you shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and dwell in it; for I have given you the land to possess it...
But if you will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall come to pass, that those whom you allow to remain of them shall be as thorns in your eyes, and stings in your sides, and shall harass you in the land wherein you dwell.

The Boundaries of the Land
This is the land that shall fall to you for an inheritance, the land of Canaan with its borders:
Your south border shall be the outmost coast of the Dead Sea eastward... to Ma'aleh-Akrabbim... to Kadesh-Barnea, and shall go on to Hazar-Addar, and pass on to Atzmon; the border shall turn about from Atzmon to the wadi of Egypt, and its limits shall be at the Sea.
And as for the western border, you shall have the Great Sea for a border; this shall be your west border.

And this shall be your north border: from the Great Sea you shall mark out your frontier at Hor HaHar... to the entrance of Hamat... to Zedad... to Zifron, and its limits shall be at Hatzar Einan...
And you shall point out your east border from Hatzar Eienan to Shefam... to Rivlah... and shall reach the eastward projection of the Sea of Kinneret... down to the Jordan, and its limits shall be at the Dead Sea.

This shall be your land with its borders round about.
The tribe of Levi, who will not be allotted a portion of the land, should be given 48 cities in which to dwell.

Cities of Refuge
Six cities--three on each side of the Jordan--should be set aside as havens for "one who slays a soul unawares."

Anyone who causes the death of a fellow--intentionally or not--must find his way immediately to one of the Cities of Refuge, "so that the killer shall not die before he stand before the congregation in judgment." Only there is he safe from the "redeemer of the blood"--the relative of the slain person who comes to avenge the death. For if the avenging relative kills the killer outside of a city of refuge, "he shall not be guilty of blood."

The killer is then brought before the court. If he is convicted of intentional murder, he is executed. "The redeemer of the blood himself shall slay the murderer; where he meets him, he shall slay him."

If he is found guilty only of causing a death through his negligence, but without intent to kill,
The congregation shall save the slayer from the hand of the redeemer of the blood; and the congregation shall send him back to the city of his refuge... and he shall dwell in it until the death of the High Priest, who was anointed with the holy oil.

Again, only there does the law protect him from the vengeance of the slain man's relatives.
And these laws shall be for a statute of judgment to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings:

Whoever kills any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the testimony of [two] witnesses; but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die.
You shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death... For blood pollutes the land; and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.

And you shall not defile the land which you shall inhabit, in which I dwell; for I, YHVH, dwell among the children of Israel. Six cities of refuge shall they be for you (35:13). The Torah includes six hundred and thirteen mitzvot (commandments).... Of these, the mitzvot that can be observed today [following the destruction of the Holy Temple and our exile from the Holy Land] number, altogether, three hundred and thirty-nine. Among these are mitzvot for which a person becomes obligated only under certain circumstances, so that it is possible that never in his lifetime will these circumstances come about and he will never have the opportunity to do them--e.g., the mitzvah to pay an employee on time... The number of mitzvot that every person is obligated in is two hundred and seventy... Many of these, however, are binding only on certain days of the year or certain times of the day.

There are six mitzvot whose obligation is constant, and does not depart from the person for a single moment throughout his lifetime. These are: to believe in YHVH, to avow His oneness, to renounce idolatry, to love YHVH, to fear Him, and to avoid temptation to sin. They are symbolized by the verse, "Six cities of refuge shall they be for you." (Sefer HaChinuch)

Marriage Restrictions
The five daughters of Tzlofchad, whose father had died without sons, had petitioned for a share in the Land (as recounted last week in the Parasha of Pinchas). Now, the leaders of their tribe, Menasseh, approached Moses with a petition of their own. If any of these women will marry someone from another tribe, they argued, this would mean that their sons, who will inherit their land, will likewise be of another tribe. The result would be that, "their portion... and shall be added to the inheritance of the tribe to which they are joined, and the lot of our inheritance will be diminished."

The following law is therefore decreed by Moses, in the name of YHVH:
Any daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the children of Israel, shall marry a man of the family of the tribe of her father... So that the inheritance shall not remove from one tribe to another tribe; but every one of the tribes of the children of Israel shall keep himself to his own inheritance.

"These are the commandments and the judgments," concludes the Parasha of Massei and the Book of Numbers, "which YHVH commanded by the hand of Moses to the children of Israel, in the plains of Moab by the Jordan near Jericho."

Shabbat Shalom

No comments: