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Parashat 07/27/2011

Parashat Masei

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff


The Torah commands that the Jewish nation establish 6 “cities of refuge” where an unintentional (but negligent) killer may flee to avoid vengeance from the victim’s relatives.  The refuge is effective under two situations: before the killer stands trial, a trial which will determine his level of culpability; and after the trial, where, if he was found to be negligent but not grossly so, he is exiled to the city of refuge and cannot return until the death of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest).  Interestingly, three of the cities of refuge are to be on the east bank of the Jordan, where two tribes, Reuven and Gad, plus a part of the tribe of Menashe, live, while the other three are in the Land of Israel proper (i.e. west of the Jordan), where the other 9 tribes plus the bulk of the tribe of Menashe live.  In terms of the population numbers from the census taken in Parashat Pinchas, there would be about 1/6 of the population living on the east side of the Jordan, with the other 5/6 living west of the Jordan.  Thus the distribution of cities of refuge is geographically balanced – one has about as far to flee no matter where one is living amongst the 12 tribes, but in terms of population the east side of the Jordan is greatly overserved.  Why is this?


The commentators give several answers, but the one I find most fascinating is that “murders were more common on the eastern side of the Jordan.”  Now murderers are not afforded the luxury of exile in a city of refuge.  If the murder is intentional, or even grossly negligent, the murderer is put to death.  Torah is explicit – one cannot buy one’s way out of the death penalty.  Going further however, if murder is more common, so is negligent homicide; the commentators tell us that the two go hand-in-hand, and point to a general disregard for human life, one that leads to lack of care to preserve, protect and nurture life.  This answer just pushes the question a bit further back – why should the east side of the Jordan be a more dangerous place to live?


In Parashat Matot we are told why the tribes of Reuven and Gad wanted to live there: The Reuvenites and the Gadites had a great deal of cattle, very much cattle, and they saw the land of Ya’zer and the land of Gil’ad, that the place was cattle-country. (32:1)  Later, when negotiating with Moshe Rabbeinu the terms under which they would live in the land they wanted, they stated: We’ll build corrals for our animals there, and cities for our children. (32:16)  Moshe criticizes the implied inverted priorities (cattle first, children afterwards!) and tells them: Build cities for your children and corrals for your flocks… (32:24).  To their credit, the two tribes understand their error and correct it.  Nevertheless it is clear that on the east bank to a greater extent than on the west bank, property values are accorded higher priority than human values.  People who are more concerned with their cattle than with their own children certainly will not give proper thought or proper weight to other people’s children’s welfare.


In our tradition, animals have a kind of soul – it is the life-spirit inside the body that animates it, and it is sometimes referred to as the “animal soul.”  Human beings have an animal soul as well – it is what keeps our body alive and functioning.  Unlike animals however, human beings also have what is called a “Divine soul.”  This is the content of the breath that H” breathed into Adam when he was created.  It specifically gives us the ability to create, to speak (Onkelos translates and the man became a living soul as and it became in the man a speaking soul), and to transcend the limitations of the body and the animal soul, with its drives and instincts, and to commune with Gd.  The Divine soul, being eternal, sees the body as a tool to interact with and to uplift the material world, but the pleasures of the body and of the material world, being ephemeral, have no attraction for it.  The animal soul, steeped in instinct, knows only bodily pleasure and is incapable of transcending itself.  Our ability to sacrifice ourselves for someone or something else is a function of the Divine, not the animal soul.


Perhaps Torah is telling us that we need to make sure our own priorities are straight.  If we are rich in cattle – that is, if our animal soul is overpowering our Divine soul, to the extent that we’re more concerned about our property/body than about our relationship with Gd, then we need to make some adjustments.  Otherwise we begin to perceive other people, that is, others with a Divine soul of their own, as objects, nothing more than cattle/chattle, to be used for our own purposes and discarded.  With such an attitude widespread, society breaks down and one wonders whether three cities of refuge are even enough to handle the traffic of homicides.  Lest one believe that this is a theoretical problem, or that it applied in Biblical times only, one need only pick up a newspaper to see how relevant this issue is to our own society, and to every other society in the world.


We can take this a step further, and in doing so see a solution.  When we identify ourselves with our bodies/animal souls, we tend to project this identification onto others.  Similarly, when we grow spiritually, and begin to identify ourselves with our Divine souls, we also begin to project this identification onto others.  That is, rather than seeing others as objects, we begin to perceive the innate Divinity in every human being.  When one begins to perceive everyone else as possessing the same essential, Divine, infinite nature as our own essence, we naturally begin to care for them and nourish them in the same way we would care for and nourish our own life.  The purpose of exile to the cities of refuge, which were cities given to the Levites, the spiritual teachers of Israel, was to encourage just such a switch in perspective – from objectifying others to perceiving others in terms of one’s own, infinite Self.  Once this shift had taken place, the former killer could be returned to society, ready to make a positive contribution.


R. Akiva stated that the verse You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Vayikra 19:18) is “the great principle of Torah.”  As we discussed at that verse, in order to love your neighbor as yourself, you must first learn to evaluate your neighbor in the same terms you evaluate yourself – as a reflection of the same infinite, unbounded, Divine essence that underlies all forms and phenomena in the universe.  May we soon all rise to that state, and realize a society that has no more need for cities of refuge.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 2

Mishnah 8

[Hillel] used to say: the more flesh, the more worms; the more possessions, the more worry … the more Torah, the more life… the more charity, the more peace…

If Torah is hinting, in the matter of the cities of refuge, that our priorities need to be on our spiritual lives more than on our material lives, Hillel is quite direct about it in our Mishnah.  The more we focus on the material, the stronger it becomes in our life, and that means in all its corpulence and grossness, in all its thickness and density, in all its ability to cover over our inner, Divine essence.  The antidote is to focus on the spiritual – to use the material world in order to transcend the material world.  Do you have a mouth?  Use it to speak words of Torah!  Do you have property?  Use it to help those who need help!  Do you have a body?  Use it to perform mitzvot and acts of kindness!  You will have to leave your body behind to decay in the ground one day anyway, but your soul is in its essence pure Life, infinite and eternal.  We all understand this intellectually.  Perhaps Hillel’s blunt words should shock us to take it to heart and really believe it.