Hebrew Insights into Parashat Masa’ey – Bamidbar (Numbers) 33 – 36
We have come to the end of Bamidbar (Numbers), to Parashat Masa’ey. “These are the journeys of – “masa’ey” - the sons of Israel… (33:1, emphasis added), “and Moses wrote their departures according to their journeys by the mouth of YHVH. And these are their journeys, according to their departures” (v. 2). Although Moshe is entirely familiar with the journeys and the name of each location that the people of Yisrael had gone through, and/or encamped at, the account which will now follow (vv. 3- 49) is dictated to him “by the mouth of YHVH.” Wondering as to the importance of these technical details, some of the sages, including Rashi, have concluded that this list was to serve as a reminder to the people of YHVH’s watchfulness over them, and of His attention to each and every detail pertaining to their lives and destiny. Thus, the names of each of the places is used as a device to invoke in them the memory of YHVH’s care for them. According to Maimonides, the names of the places are a testimony intended to verify that they have indeed stayed at the locations mentioned; places where only YHVH Himself could have sustained them, thusly bringing to their minds the miracles which He wrought for them. Sforno adds to this: “’The Lord blessed be He desired that the stages of the Israelites’ journeyings be written down to make known their merit in their going after Him in a wilderness, in a land that was not sown [ref. Jer. 2:2] so that they eventually deserved to enter the land. ‘And Moses wrote’ – he wrote down their destination and place of departure. For sometimes that place for which they were headed was evil and the place of departure good… Sometime the reverse happened. He wrote down too the details of their journeyings because it involved leaving for a new destination without any previous notice, which was very trying. Despite all this, they kept to the schedule…’ In other words, according to Sforno the Torah shows us both sides of the coin. We have been shown an Yisrael “composed of rebels and grumblers, having degenerated from the lofty spiritual plane of their religious experience at Mount Sinai… Now the Torah changes its note and shows us the other side of the picture, Israel loyal to their trust, following their God through the wilderness… They followed Him in spite of all the odds, through the wildernesses of Sinai, Etham, Paran and Zin… that was also a place of fiery serpents and scorpions and drought where there was no water, where our continued existence would have been impossible, were it not for the grace of God…”
Chapter 34 details the extent of the territory of the inheritance. In an era when defined borders did not exist, this was a novelty which underscores, once again, the importance YHVH attaches to the land and to its occupation. It is here that He also appoints those “who will take possession of the land for you” (34:17). Following these instructions, the towns which are to be occupied by the Levites (among the other tribes’ territories), are listed. “Command the sons of Israel that they give to the Levites cities to live in, from the land of their possessions, and you shall give to the Levites open land for the cities” (35:2). “Open land” is “migrash.” One of the words for “inheritance” is “yerusha” (33:52, 53), in which is embedded the term to “impoverish” (being a reference to the party from whom one’s inheritance is wrested). “Migrash,” which the Levites were to be granted, is of the root g.r.sh (gimmel, resh, shin) and its primary meaning is to “cast" or "drive out.” Hebrew certainly does not conceal or embellish the hard-core ‘facts of life’, and does not make attempts at being politically correct. As a matter of fact, from Matthew 11:12 we learn that the Kingdom of Heaven is also “seized by force.” Thus, in taking hold of YHVH’s possession (and their inheritance), the Israelites had to “impoverish” and “cast out” the inhabitants of the land. When “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian… mocking, she said to Abraham, ‘Drive away [“ga’resh”] this slave-girl and her son, for the son of this slave-girl shall not inherit [“yirash” – will cause another to be impoverished] with my son, with Isaac’” (Gen. 21:9,10).
The next topic is that of the refuge cities and their respective guidelines, one of which states that if a person has slain someone unintentionally he is to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest, and only then return to the “land of his possession [inheritance]” (35: 25, 28). Similarly, it is only through the death of our High Priest that we too have been released, and may now come out of our proverbial confinement into the freedom of our inheritance (ref. Acts 20:32; 26:18; Eph. 1:11; Col. 3:24; Heb. 9:15). This fact gains even more validity when we read the last part of the chapter: “And you shall take no ransom [kofer, of the root k.f/p.r – kippur] for the life of a murderer; he is punishable for death, for dying he shall die. And you shall take no ransom [kofer] for him to flee to the city of his refuge, to return to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest. And you shall not pollute the land in which you are, for blood pollutes the land. And no ransom [kofer] is to be taken for the land for blood which is shed in it, except for the blood of him who sheds it; and you shall not defile the land in which you are living. I dwell in its midst, for I, YHVH, am dwelling among the sons of Israel” (35:31-34). Thus, the blood of Yeshua our High Priest has purified both our earthly inheritance and ourselves, and at the same time has also gained for us a heavenly one (ref. 1Pet. 1:4). According to the English translation, the cities of refuge are to be “selected.” The Hebrew, on the other hand, reads: “You shall cause cities to occur (for yourselves)… “ve’hik’re’tem” – root k.r.h (kof, resh, hey) (35:11), an expression which is an oxymoron, as one’s will is either actively involved, or else things occur in a happenstance manner, or (more likely) by Providence beyond one’s control. Once again the Hebraic mentality presents a challenge, pointing to the place where Providence and man’s choice meet, even at the expense of defying human logic.
YHVH’s detailed attention to the place He has set apart is seen again in the last chapter of Parashat Masa’ey, where we learn that “no inheritance of the sons of Israel shall turn from tribe to tribe, for each one of the sons of Israel shall cling to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. And any daughter that possesses an inheritance from any tribe of the sons of Israel to one of the family of the tribe of her father is to become a wife of the family of the tribe of her father, so that the sons of Israel may each possess the inheritance of his father. And the inheritance shall not turn from one tribe to another tribe. For the tribes of the sons of Israel shall each one cling to its own inheritance, as YHVH commanded Moses” (36:7-10 emphases added). The word for “turn” here, in future tense, is “tisov” of the root s.v.v (samech, vet, vet). “Savov” is to “turn about” or ”go around.” It is indicative of mobility, unstableness and temporariness. The usage of this verb here lends extra emphasis to the issue at hand: “For the tribes of Israel shall each cling – yid’b’ku, adhere, cleave like glue - to its own inheritance, as YHVH commanded…” In B’resheet 3:24 we read: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother, and will cleave/adhere/cling to his wife and they will become one flesh.” YHVH declares above that He dwells in the midst of the land, among the sons of Yisrael (35:34); it is no wonder therefore that He is so very particular about the set up of His abode.
1 New Studies in Bamidbar, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman, Eliner Library,
Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, Hemed Books Inc.,