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Friday, July 20, 2012

Parshat Matot-Ma'asei: Maintaining Balance Between Us and the World

This week we finish reading the book of Bemidbar/Numbers with the double parashah/portion of Matot-Ma'asei.At the beginning of Chapter 32, in Parshat Matot, the people are encamped on the east side of the Jordan river preparing to enter and conquer the Promised Land of Canaan. The tribes of Reuben and the Gad, who owned a great many flocks and cattle, noticed that the lands where they were encamped were perfect for raising both. And so the leaders of Reuben and Gad came to Moses, Eleazar the priest and the chieftains of the community asking if they could settle on these lands rather than within the Promised Land.

Moses replies to them in anger. He reminds them that 40 years earlier the 10 “evil spies” gave a negative report on the land of Canaan and, because the people believed them, they were forced to wander until that generation died off. “And now,” he says, “ you, a breed of sinful men, have replaced your fathers, to add still further to God's wrath against Israel! If you turn away from God and God abandons the people once more in the wilderness, you will bring calamity upon the people!”

Then the leaders of Reuben and Gad explained that they would first build “sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children” and then they would go to battle with the other tribes to conquer the land. Only after the conquer was complete would they return to the land East of the Jordan River.

Upon hearing this, Moses agrees that if they actually do as they say and do not abandon the other tribes, but fight as shock troops in the battle then all will be well. But if they do not then they will have turned their backs on God. He then concludes “Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised.” The tribal leaders reply: “Your servants will do as my lord commands. Our children,our wives, our flocks, and all our other livestock will stay behind......while your servants cross over at the insistence of YHWH to engage in battle.”

Later in Parshat Ma'asei, the entire journey from Egypt until their arrival at the Jordan river is recounted in excruciating detail. Then God tells Moses that each tribe is to take a portion of their land and create towns for the Levites, the priestly tribe. Since their duty is to care for the mishkan / Tabernacle, they are not to be given land as are the other tribes. But the donated land will include both cities in which they shall live and pastures for the Levites' cattle and flocks.

Finally, God commands Moses that, once in the land, they are to create six arei miklat – cities of refuge. These cities shall be used as a refuge for those who have committed a murder unintentionally. For according to law, the go'el dam – or blood avenger – the closest family member of the one who was killed is required to seek the life of the murderer, even when the murder is accidental. However, if the murderer lives in an ir miklat / city of refuge– the avenger may not touch them.

At first blush, these three passages seem to have nothing in common. And yet, as often is the case, the Torah is more than meets the eye. Can anyone here see a common thread? Yes, the common thread is land. And land is central in so many ways to the Torah, ancient Israelite religion and later Judaism. It is also central to the American national mythology. 

Just recently we celebrated what would have been Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday. In his music he told us “this land is your land, this land is my land.” All of the land belongs to all of the people. And he poetically describes the various borders and boundaries. In this week's parashah, God tells Moses what the boundaries are to be of the Promised Land. A land that is also to belong to all of the people, though it is to be apportioned appropriately. And yet, we know from our tradition, as expressed best in the Psalms, la'donai ha'aretz um'loah. Tevel v'yoshvei vah. The land and all that fills it is God's. The earth and all its inhabitants.” We are landlords and tenants on the land. God is the ultimate owner. And it is not only the earth that is God's, but all that fills it and all who inhabit it. Keep that in mind as we review the texts I cited a few minutes ago.

The Torah tells us repeatedly, that the land of Canaan is holy. It is, pardon the expression, the holy grail at the end of this long journey. It is because of the holiness of the land, as well as his belief that the Gadites and Reubenites were shirking their responsibilities, that Moses at first berates the leaders for wanting to settle on the East side of the Jordan. For it was the 10 spies' fear of entering the land that resulted in the 40 years of wandering in the desert. Now he is concerned that the new generation is going to repeat their ancestors' mistakes with dire consequences. But the tribes promise to help conquer the land assuages Moses. However, it is the use of the land and its connection to the people that is also of importance in this narrative.

Judaism has always taught that the holiness of the people is above the holiness of the land. But in this case, according to one rabbinic interpretation, it appears that the Gadites have their priorities all wrong. For they tell Moses that they will build “sheepfolds for their flocks and towns for their children.” Midrash Rabbah (a collection of ancient rabbinic commentaries) states that the fact that they put their flocks before their children angered Moses. So that when he finally does give permission, he intentionally reversed the order, putting the children first. According to this commentary, the tribal leaders pick up on this and realize the errors of their thinking. And so they reply, “Our children,our wives, our flocks, and all our other livestock will stay behind......”

Yes, the land and all that is in it is God's. Is holy. But it is the sanctity and importance of the people who will live on the land that are of utmost importance. So too with the conquer of the land. It is essential that all the tribes participate in it's conquer, because it will be a home all of them after years of slavery and then wandering. But once in the land, the priests need a place to live. They have no property of their own, perhaps to avoid them becoming wealthy, corrupt land owners as had happened to the priest of ancient Egypt. But whatever the reason, the important thing is that each tribe must give of their own land so that the Levites, those responsible for the holiness and the ritual life of the nation, will have a place to dwell. Again, land serves the needs and the holiness of the people, and not the other way around. But in the end, it all serves God.

The third passage, concerning the building of cities of refuge, is in some way the key to the whole issue of the relationship between the land and the people. For it is based on the belief that there is no monetary or other equivalent to the taking of a human life. But precisely because the Torah values human life so greatly. Earlier in the parashah we learn how difficult it is to convict someone of first degree murder. There must be two witnesses who actually see the act and the murder must have been warned by them before the murder took place. The rabbis later expanded these laws so that it was almost impossible to convict someone. But even when the murder is accidental, the go'el dam, blood avenger, must seek out the murderer. This is based on the notion that when blood that is spilled (as well as adultery, idolatry and various “unethical” acts are committed) it pollutes the land in a spiritual sense; and if the land gets too polluted it will literally spit out its inhabitants. We read of this time and again in the books of the Prophets.

In other words, there is a delicate balance maintained between the God's people and God's land and blood must avenge blood. However, in terms of an accidental murder, the cities of refuge saved the murderer from potential death. So even though there is not a blood for blood balancing of the scales, there is a spiritual balancing through the legal process and through the creation of these cities. As long as the murderer remains in the cities of refuge, then the Divine balance is still maintained. Again, the land, which is God's, is there to serve the holiness of God's creature - humanity, and not the reverse. And the key to everything is maintaining balance.

In a surface reading it may seem as if the land is simply there to meet the people's needs. That it is there to provide for them, whether it be pastures, a home or shelter. But since the land and the people belong to God, then this is not really true. It is all about God and about holiness. When Moses is berating the tribal leaders for wanting to live in the land on the other side of the Jordan, he invokes the name of God 6 times! For he knows that if they are making an affront to anyone, it is to God, not Moses or the people.

The Levites are also charged with serving God in a specific way, and in return, God sees to it that they are provide land – which really belongs to God and not to the tribes – on which to live. And finally, the balance of God's justice and compassion shine through in the creation of the cities of refuge,insuring that they do not become a murderous and vindictive society. All of these texts point to the holiness of the people, the role of the land in supporting them, and the fact that this is all a part of God's order.

But what does all of this say to us today? What lesson can we learn? I believe that there are many. Most simply, we are reminded of the interdependent holiness of the land and the people. Yes, in these examples, the land serves the people's needs, but only within the context of maintaining a holy, just and balanced society. This does not mean that human beings are free to do whatever we want with the land (and you can apply this to so many issues today). For we must always think about how we are interconnected and how land, people, animals, and everything that fills the land are all a part of God. In other words, adonai ehad. God is one. All that fills the universe is one with God. If we remember this, then it is a little easier for us to remember to treat human beings, animals and our world with compassion and care. And each of the events we have discussed can teach us something different about this.

The first can remind us that no matter where we are, holiness can be found if we care for one another. If we pay attention. If we keep our priorities straight and if we work together for the good of our community and of our world.

The second reminds us that bringing holiness and godliness into our world is a responsibility that we all share. Just as the tribes each gave up land to support the Levites. So too, each of us gives or sacrifices a piece of ourselves to support the creation of holiness, goodness, compassion and justice in our world.

And finally, we must maintain balance balance between justice and mercy, rigid boundaries and flexibility, between strength and compassion. If we do this then we shall leave peacefully with the land and the land shall live peacefully with us. Is this a simple task? No. It is one with which we have and continued to struggle. But if we pay attention and remember some of the lessons of this parashah, it is one which we can accomplish one day, one moment at a time. Shabbat Shalom.

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