Thursday, 28 Jul 2011

Written by Rabbi Danny Burkeman

This week as we read parashat Mas’ei our people stand on the banks of the Jordan near Jericho, with our journey to the Land of Israel almost at an end. This parashah marks the end of our desert wanderings, and so appropriately it begins with a recollection of the various places we have sojourned in over the previous forty years. Even when traveling to the Promised Land, it is not simply about the destination, but also the journey which we undertake to get there; our wanderings in the wilderness are now as much a part of us as our experiences in Egypt.

Logically enough this is followed by a definition of the boundaries of the land which we are about to enter. This would seem like an appropriate place to break before beginning Moses’ farewell address at the start of the Book of Deuteronomy (next week). But there appear to be three loose ends which need to be tied up: the land which the Levites will receive, the cities of refuge and the daughters of Zelophchad.

As one of the twelve tribes it is important that the Levites receive an assurance that although they will not be receiving a specific portion in the Land of Israel, the other tribes will be responsible for providing them with space to live in. While the Levites are an elevated priestly class, they are also landless, and as such one can see them as representative of all the homeless. Before we receive our specific portion in the land we are reminded that we have an obligation to those who do not have a home of their own.

The daughters of Zelophchad stand for the rights of women in this male division of the land. While the system may be structured on the son inheriting land from his father, we must not ignore the rights of the daughters in our society. Machlah, Tirza, Hogla, Milkah and Noa fight for their rights as women, receive them, and as such provide an appropriate final word.

But what of the cities of refuge? How significant is this group of involved in accidental homicide likely to be? Why must their status be resolved before entering the Land of Israel?

The cities of refuge are hinted at in Exodus 21:13, when God says that there will be a place for accidental killers to flee to. This place is simultaneously a punishment (as it is a form of exile) and a form of protection (from the victim’s family who may seek revenge).

Emmanuel Levinas, the French Jewish philosopher of the last century, wrote an article entitled ‘Cities of Refuge’ in which he characterised the inhabitants of these cities as half-innocent and half-guilty parties. These people are not full murderers, but they are not completely innocent of any crime. Levinas’ shocking conclusion is that today we are all living in cities of refuge. For us to live in our comfortable western society others are suffering and dying so that we will have cheap food, clothes, oil, etc. We are not directly guilty for the murders and abuse, but we are not completely innocent. Levinas’ startling accusation is that ‘There are cities of refuge because we have enough conscience to have good intentions, but not enough not to betray them by our acts’.1

Previously, when reading parashat Mas’ei I have thought of the cities of refuge as something foreign, something ‘other’. Levinas instead suggests that the cities of refuge may be read as a warning about how we live our lives and the impact which our lives can have on others.

With this insight, the land which the Levites will receive, the cities of refuge and the daughters of Zelophchad appear to serve as a most fitting conclusion to the Book of Numbers. They serve as a reminder to care for the homeless, to recognise the rights of women and all members of our society and to ensure that others do not suffer at our expense. With this message we are finally able to end our wanderings in the wilderness and prepare to enter the Promised Land.


Rabbi Danny Burkeman
July 2011
Previously published 2008




1 Emmanuel Levinas, Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1984), p. 50.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.