Parasha Inspiration – Mattot-Massei

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֖ אֲלֵהֶ֑ם כִּ֥י אַתֶּ֛ם עֹֽבְרִ֥ים אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֖ן אַ֥רְצָה כְּנָֽעַן: וְהִקְרִיתֶ֤ם לָכֶם֙ עָרִ֔ים עָרֵ֥י מִקְלָ֖ט תִּֽהְיֶ֣ינָה לָכֶ֑ם וְנָ֥ס שָׁ֨מָּה֙ רֹצֵ֔חַ מַכֵּה־נֶ֖פֶשׁ בִּשְׁגָגָֽה: וְהָי֨וּ לָכֶ֧ם הֶֽעָרִ֛ים לְמִקְלָ֖ט מִגֹּאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֤א יָמוּת֙ הָֽרֹצֵ֔חַ עַד־עָמְד֛וֹ לִפְנֵ֥י הָֽעֵדָ֖ה לַמִּשְׁפָּֽט: וְהֶֽעָרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּתֵּ֑נוּ שֵֽׁשׁ־עָרֵ֥י מִקְלָ֖ט תִּֽהְיֶ֥ינָה לָכֶֽם: אֵ֣ת | שְׁל֣שׁ הֶֽעָרִ֗ים תִּתְּנוּ֙ מֵעֵ֣בֶר לַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן וְאֵת֙ שְׁל֣שׁ הֶֽעָרִ֔ים תִּתְּנ֖וּ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן עָרֵ֥י מִקְלָ֖ט תִּֽהְיֶֽינָה:

Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan to the land of Canaan, you shall designate cities for yourselves; they shall be cities of refuge for you, and a murderer who killed a person unintentionally shall flee there. These cities shall serve you as a refuge from an avenger, so that the murderer shall not die until he stands in judgment before the congregation. The cities that you provide shall serve as six cities of refuge for you. You shall provide the three cities in trans Jordan and the three cities in the land of Canaan; they shall be cities of refuge.

Numbers 35:10-14

This week’s Torah portion contains an interesting mitzvah for the children of Israel who were about to enter the land of the promise. 6 cities of refuge are to be built, 3 on either side of the Jordan River. The explanation of the cities of refuge is brief, but telling. There is a clash of culture that exists that must be dealt with amongst the children of Israel.

Anthropologists explain that there are several ways to structure morality within societies, both ancient and modern. Some societies pressure morality around the concepts of right and wrong. Some societies structure morality around the concepts of honor and shame.

Scriptural morality is defined by right and wrong, good and evil. Whether the action is considered good and just, or not, depends on the understanding of right and wrong. From antiquity, and even until today, the more prevalent structure in the Middle East is that of honor and shame. Cultures that are regulated by a morality of honor and shame functioned quite differently from those whose moral basis is right and wrong.

For example, if an accidental death occurs in a society whose morale in is based on honor and shame, it is a necessity for the kinsman of the deceased to avenge. A shaming has occurred and honor must be upheld. Who is at fault in the killing? Was the killing accidental? Should someone be held responsible or not? In societies regulated by honor and shame, these questions are irrelevant. There has been a shaming and honor must be restored. This can only be accomplished by avenging the death. Whether the vengeance is right or wrong never enters into the equation.

Hashem moves the children of Israel toward a right and wrong morality, but it cannot be accomplished all at once. So, cities of refuge are established in order to limit the knee-jerk reactions of of avenging kinsman. If the killer flees to a city of refuge, the avenging kinsman may not carry out a vengeance killing. The avenging kinsman are required to wait for a trial to determine whether a killing was a murderer or an accident. In other words, is the avenging kinsman in the right or wrong in killing the killer? Only a fair trial can determine this, it is a new way of thinking, right and wrong, for the children of Israel. Shabbat shalom.


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Rabbi Steven Bernstein

Steve was born on Lag B’Omer in Ann Arbor, MI but was raised in Gainesville, FL. The son of two University of Florida professors, he excelled in the sciences in school. In addition to his normal academic studies, he pursued his Jewish education studying with many Rabbis and professors of Judaic Studies from the University including visiting Rabbis such as Abraham Joshua Heschel and Shlomo Carlebach.