Parashat Masei – Towards an Ethics of Responsibility

וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא אֶת-הָאָרֶץ

Parashat Masei concludes Sefer Bamidbar by discussing the division of the Land of Israel into twelve sections for the 12[1] tribes of Israel. Additionally, it contains a few extra passages related to the division of the land, such as the designating of 48 cities for the Levi’im, six as cities of refuge, and the command to the Daughters of Tselophehad not to marry outside their tribe, in order to keep their inherited lands within the tribe. In addition, there is a passage discussing the laws of killing, both intentional and accidental. As an unintentional murderer is able to flee for his life to a city of refuge, the placement of this passage seems a fitting extension of the designation of the cities of the Levi’im. However, the law of the city of refuge is mentioned briefly in Shemot 21:13, and discussed at length in Devarim 19, and thus, its insertion here seems a little odd. If this passage had been inserted by Shemot 21:13, no one would have batted an eye, and then when the text described the designation of cities for the Levi’im, it would simply have had to mention that six of their cities would be cities of refuge, and that would be that. Instead, this lengthy passage is inserted at the end of Bamidbar, and its placement requires explanation. This explanation can be found by comparing this passage with the parallel passage from Devarim 19, and the end of Vayikra 18.

As opposed to Shemot 21:13, Devarim 19 contains a discussion of cities of refuge as lengthy as the one found in Bamidbar 35[2] . However, the structure and content of the two passages vary greatly. The passage in Bamidbar is essentially a discussion of the laws of killing in general, and thus it also includes the laws of an unintentional killer by default. The first mention of the purpose of the cities of refuge doesn’t even mention that the killing is unintentional. “And the cities shall be for you as a refuge from the avenger, that the killer not die, until he stand before the congregation for judgment.” (Bamidbar 35:12) It’s only a few verses later that the intent of the verse is clarified: “For the children of Israel, and for the stranger and for the settler among them, shall these six cities be a refuge, that every one that kills any person through error may flee there.” (35:15). By contrast, the passage in Devarim 19 is dedicated to the unintentional killer and the cities of refuge, and only mentions intentional killing in context of the possibility of an intentional killer hiding in the city of refuge. “But if any man hates his neighbor, and lies in wait for him, and rises up against him, and smites him mortally that he die; and he flees into one of these cities; then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him from there, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die” (Devarim 19:11-12). Thus the passage in Bamidbar seems to equate the two modes of killing somewhat, whereas the passage in Devarim does not. This is reinforced by the fact that Devarim simply mentions the city of refuge as protecting him from the threat of death by the avenger, while Bamidbar depicts the killer being taken there for judgement:

Then the congregation shall judge between the killer and the avenger of blood according to these ordinances; and the congregation shall deliver the killer out of the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge where he had fled; and he shall dwell there until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil. (Bamidbar 35:25)

Further, while in Sefer Devarim the city of refuge is a privilege and a gift of safety for this unintentional killer, in Sefer Bamidbar the killer is actually forced to stay in the city (35:25), making it as much a punishment as a reprieve. It is clear from the passage at Sefer Bamidbar that while the unintentional killer should certainly be able to avail himself of the city of refuge, he is not totally guiltless.

While this explains what makes this passage unique it fails to explain its placement. Finding this explanation requires contrasting this passage with verses from Vayikra 18:

And the land was defiled (וַתִּטְמָא הָאָרֶץ), therefore I did visit the iniquity upon it, and the land vomited out her inhabitants. Therefore you shall keep My statutes and My ordinances, and shall not do any of these abominations; neither the citizen, nor the stranger that settles among you—for all these abominations have the men of the land done, that were before you, and the land is defiled (וַתִּטְמָא הָאָרֶץ)—that the land vomit not you out also, when you defile it (בְּטַמַּאֲכֶם אֹתָהּ), as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (Vayikra 18:25-28)[3]

These verses, describing the transgressions of the previous residents of the Land of Israel that caused their ownership of the land to be forfeit, are clearly referenced in the passage in Bamidbar 35.

So you shall not pollute the land that you are in; for blood, it pollutes the land; and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of him that shed it[4]. And thou shalt not defile the land (וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא אֶת-הָאָרֶץ) which ye inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD dwell in the midst of the children of Israel. (Bamidbar 35:33-34)

The passages even use the exact same wording, highlighting their innate connection. Moreover, both of these passages explain certain commands in terms of the effect trespassing them has on the land that the Nation of Israel will dwell in. The Land of Israel will not tolerate such intense trespasses. Even unintentionally, the killing of another person is such a severe crime as to have serious repercussions not just on the person[5] but on their surroundings as well, and, much like the sins of the nations that previously dwelled in the land, it costs them their ability to remain in the land[6]. Thus, the reason that the passage regarding the laws of a killer are placed at the end of Sefer Bamidbar, right in the middle of a discussion about the Division of the Land, is that they are a condition for, and a feature of, dwelling in the land.

The narrative and subsections of the Division of the Land are the final section of Sefer Bamidbar. They are the final necessary preparations before the people enter the land, and into this section is inserted laws emphasizing not just the conditions of living in the land, but the responsibility of the people who live in it. Even the unintentional killer must stand trial and endure exile (Bamidbar 35:24-25). Even the Kohen HaGadol, responsible for the religious and spiritual life of the nation, must bear the responsibility for this tragedy (Ibid). Upon entering the land, ‘א’s active and overt interaction in the life of the people begins to decrease. ‘א helps the people conquer in Sefer Yehoshua[7], but in Sefer Shoftim[8] the mark of a good leader is the lack of active involvement by ‘א. As ‘א becomes less involved, the people are expected to step in and take up more responsibility. In a world where we do not ever see open miracles, this responsibility is paramount. We cannot expect ‘א to simply take care of things, and assume that absolves us of our responsibilities. We have to stand tall and take responsibility, even for accidents[9] and mistakes, even for those things done by the people in our charge rather than by ourselves. There is a marked difference between conscious transgression and unavoidable misconduct, but there is never a reason to shirk responsibility.

[1] The Tribe of Levi does not get a portion, as they are split up into 48 cities throughout the other tribes, but the Tribe of Yosef is split into two separate tribes, Ephraim and Menashe, so the number of tribes remains twelve. This trade-off between the tribe of Levi and the splitting of Yosef’s tribe can be found throughout the torah. The only place Levi is listed alongside both Ephraim and Menashe is at the end of Sefer Devarim in Moshe’s farewell blessings, where Shimon is not mentioned, and so the number twelve is preserved.

[2] Much of the analysis in this paragraph is derived from this article by Rav Yonatan Grossman:

[3] This is foreshadowed in Bereishit 15:16, when ‘א explains the delay in the Bnei Yisrael’s inheriting the land by saying,“for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.”

[4] For those in whose eyes this seems barbaric, it is more than worth taking a look at Moshe Greenberg’s “The Biblical Grounding of Human Value”,

[5] For more on this effect, see the sources and theoretical discussion found in this essay:

[6] This explains the punishment of the unintentional killer in Sefer Bamidbar, where he is confined to the city of refuge. Much as the sins of Vayikra 18 merit exile, so does unintentional murder. Thus the city of refuge is not just a safe place, it’s also a form of exile, a little piece of “not the Land of Israel” inside the Land of Israel that the killer is stuck in.

[7] See the conquest of Yeriho in Yehoshua 6, for example.

[8] See the narratives of Otniel Ben-Kenaz (Shoftim 3:7-10) and Ehud Ben-Gerah (3:12-30), for example.

[9] “The difference between an accident and a tragedy is that an accident is preventable” ~ Yehuda Chaim Rothner


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