By Kymn Bonfield
July 25th 2014
Parasha Masei is the last parsha of the fourth book of Torah called Numbers or Bamidbar, in the wilderness. To summarize, Masei includes the complete list of journeys the Israelites made in the desert. God shows them the Promised Land and commands them to drive out the land’s inhabitants, to destroy their idols and to divide the land by a lottery system. God establishes the borders of the Land of Israel. It speaks of the 6 cities of refuge for those who unintentionally kill someone, and there is the issue of Tribal Inheritance for women. Some areas where there is attempt to be fair and others where there is extreme dispassion.
Egypt is in deep sorrow as the people bury their first borns who were killed in the 10th and most severe of the ten plagues. The Israelites pack light and finally leave their bondage. They wandered for 40 years. That is an accepted fact. I found some discrepancy about how many camps they stayed in. It’s widely stated as 42 but not always. One commentary summarized they camped in 19 different places in the last 19 years.
Each name of the place where they encamped was recorded by Moses, and said to evoke a characteristic of that place. It is also thought that each town represented a lesson needed to be learned or a phase in a maturing life. One place is called Livnah meaning “bricks” that were used to mark boundaries. Setting boundaries was an important skill to have, and is ongoing still. Another way to put it is that they were to accomplish a specific tikkun, a “spiritual repair.” Perhaps God’s intention was to have the Israelites learn values and ethics along their journey to prepare them for their eventual arrival.
The Torah says the Israelites stayed in one place Kadaish for 19 years, not quite as nomadic as usual. It is thought that Miriam died here. Perhaps it took a long recovery time to carry on without her. I can imagine that losing a prominent leader like Miriam would be very difficult, especially for the women and children.
Another 19 years would see Aaron die as well. Even Moses dies before they reach the Promised Land. God shows no compassion nor loyalty to the leaders that lead the people on their journey. Indeed, the entire desert experience was a journey of growth, incorporating new insights into the collective Jewish consciousness as they matured into a nation. With all that they had to let go of each of their 3 leaders, along the way.
When they get to Moab, God tells Moshe that this land across the Jordon River, the land of Canaan, where there are already inhabitants, is their inheritance, their Promised Land, and instructs the Israelites to force out the people already living there, destroy them and all their idols lest they become a thorn in their side and try to kill them, as they likely would have.
Oh my God what a set-up. This is brutal. Surely it can’t be taken literally. This is aching for me to read. Another example of a history-changing moment. This is God as warlord, a regional commander, who brings us into battle, time and again. I reject God in this image.
My God is a loving God, who soothes my soul with Divine Light and compassion. God of justice and laws and boundaries.
Why did God require the Israelites to fight a fight I doubt anyone wanted? After 40 years of wandering and wondering when it would be over and where they could put down roots, why not have the land free of anyone, unencumbered and available? Why did it have to be occupied?
Why was murder allowed in this instance but included in the “thou shalt nots” in the Commandments?
As Sholom Aleichem once asked “Didn’t God make those people too?”
Metaphorically, I can try to understand. Sometimes life is hard. There are obstacles. There are enemies you must conquer, and sometimes they are your own perceptions. So is the message that we must clean out the shmutz, clear out our prejudices and self-loathing and make room for new possibilities, new perspectives; make room for compassion. And yet, as I was writing this dvar, interspersed with news of rockets, tunnels and bloodshed, I can’t help but see the parallels, even though I don’t want to.
God instructs the Israelites to build six cities of refuge outside of the towns for those who accidentally kill someone. It would protect them from revenge killings. It goes on to instruct that they are to stay there until the High Priest dies. I imagine you would pray for a high priest that is very old so you could leave, but not so young as to still have an avenger wanting to hunt you down.
But what if the six cities of refuge are not buildings of mortar and brick at all but places you can go when you are seeking a spiritual refuge, a sanctuary from the troubles and grief of everyday living? What would that mean for you? What do you do to take refuge from the intolerable and hurting of your heart?
Meditation & davening, deep stretching, writing, singing & chanting, walking by oceans and through forests, in a synagogue, in Torah….these are all ways that came to me. When I asked my son Jason a young man of 28, where he takes refuge, he answered, after a very long pause. “Compassion for yourself”. So wise, so true. We are our worse enemies sometimes. And then I thought about Love. I take refuge in loving relationships because when the world is soaked in anger and protests and the earth is crumbling, and the water is poisoned, I take refuge in the intangible, in the arms of love and under the wings of Shechina. It brings me peace and that peace is God.
What if the number six also refers to the six constant mitzvot? We know there are 613 mitzvot listed in Torah, many that are time-sensitive or apply only to life-cycle events. However, there are six mitzvot, often referred to as the six constant mitzvot. they have unchanging circumstances to follow them, no matter what. They are considered the most important mitzvot that apply to every Jew, at all times and in all circumstances.
- Lo Yihyeh
- Echad Hashem
- Ahavat Hashem
- Yirat Hashem
- Lo Taturu
Know there is a God, don’t believe in other gods, know that God is One, Love God, Fear God, and don’t be misled by the desires of your heart and your eyes.
So 613 mitzvot, an intimidating number, actually boils down to 6. Very manageable, though the 6th one “Don’t be misled by your desires, may be exactly the downfall that befalls many. That’s a dvar Torah upon itself.
Also included in this parasha is the story of two sisters, whose father dies. Traditionally, the father’s estate would be inherited by his sons. In this case, there are no sons, no brothers to the sisters. The women plead their case to Moshe, that they are entitled, just as entitled as their brothers would be if there were any, to their inheritance from their father. Moses takes this request of the women to God who hears him out, deliberates on it and sides with the sisters, with conditions. God gives the women the right to inheritance, while enforcing the condition that they must marry within their own tribes, thereby keeping it in the family, for that generation. Only one who knows compassion would have responded this way.
This was a true step forward for the rights of women at that time. It would have taken courage for the sisters to speak up for themselves, instead of accepting the status quo. Women’s Rights were on the minds of our ancestors too.
Here is evidence of God the mediator. A just God, one of fairness, compassion and justice. This is the God of my ancestors too. Can God the Warlord and God the Mediator be the one and the same that the 6 mitzvot require me to love and fear and be devoted to?
This is so hard to interconnect.
What does this particular parasha bring up for me?
I know that I have been on many roads on this journey called my life. I have learned from each camp along the way and each experience has enriched and enhanced my life.
I have known great love, several times over and am still blessed.
I have learned that life is not always fair and neither is God. I have learned to find refuge with people who nourish my soul and avoid those who wish me harm, and I have learned how to spot the difference.
I have learned to speak up for myself. I take refuge in loving relationships, in compassion for my self and others, in prayer and in the wonders of God’s Creation.
I believe the Israelites are always learning and being tested. And I believe so am I. May we both find refuge within our boundaries in a peaceful society, free from terror, free from media bias, free from harm and in the arms of a loving God.