The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Masei: Cities of Refuge

This Torah portion recaps the journey the Israelites took through the desert on their way to Canaan. Then God tells Moses the rules for the invasion of Canaan, ironic considering that God has ordered Moses' death on this side of the Jordan River without permitting him to set foot in Canaan.

God tells Moses that the Israelites are to drive out the current inhabitants of Canaan, who have committed offenses to God bad enough that the Israelites are the retribution God has planned for the Canaanites. The Israelites are to destroy all the idols and altars of the Canaanites. The Canaanites who remain, God predicts, will be "that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell. Moreover it shall come to pass, that I shall do unto you, as I thought to do unto them." [Numbers 33: 55-56]. The Hebrew of "pricks in your eyes" is "bee stings in your eyeballs". Not a comforting image.

Then God defines the borders of the Promised Land. I'm not going to bother to quote this part (it's not like the Bible isn't readily available), since it has become the justification today for Religious Zionists to occupy the West Bank and Gaza, as well as some Transjordanian land as well, claiming that this ancient promise justifies their actions.

Because the Levites are not a tribe in the same sense that the other tribes are, they are given cities and their surrounding suburbs for their tribe. After describing these cities, God explains that a few of the cities will be designated Cities of Refuge. If a person commits manslaughter, they can escape to a city of refuge, and the city will protect them from the victim's family's vendetta until there can be a trial. The manslaughterer can find refuge in the city, and will be safe until there can be a fair trial. The passage defines the difference between murder and manslaughter. I'm not aware of a more ancient text to make the distinction.

But not only does the Bible make that distinction, but God will, later on in the Bible, designate six particular cities to be cities of refuge. To me, this seems particularly noteworthy. Who would want to live in a city of refuge, knowing that potential murderers, and people who want to kill them, will show up there? But there is also mercy in this, as these cities of refuge provide asylum for those who accidentally kill others.

The passage ends with resolution for the daughters of Zelophehad, who are told to marry within their tribe, so that their inheritance, while theirs, does not pass to another tribe when they marry.

It is customary in Torah study, when a student or group of students finishes studying a book of Torah, to say: chazak chazak v'nitchazek. This could be translated as "Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened."
חזק חזק ונתחזק

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