Parasha Masa’ei – Stages
This Torah portion brings us full circle from the beginning of B’midbar, as well as from the beginning of the Israelites’ journey through the desert. The portion begins with a recitation of each stage of their journey, where they camped along the way. This brings us from Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land in just a few short paragraphs. This is a good way to remind us of all that our people went through in their journey from bondage to land-owning nationhood. As each location is mentioned, we can remember back to the events that transpired in that location. It serves as an outline for our study of scripture and this important part of our history.
In smaller scale, we are reminded of the entire book of B’midbar. At the beginning of this book, in parasha B’midbar, Moshe is commanded to take a census of the people. The census was used to enumerate the army of Israel. These would be the men who would fight for the land when they crossed the river. This was the beginning of preparing the people for their entry into the covenant land and the responsibility they had in acquiring it. However, a little later in the book of B’midbar, we see that the perfect plan is not to be. In parasha Shlach L’kha, the people are on the brink of entering the Promised Land and taking possession of their inheritance. Unfortunately, our people were not ready for such a blessing. Their faith in YHVH to deliver the land to them – despite the many enemies they would face, including the giant Nephilim – was not strong enough to sustain them. They lost their courage to enter the land and chose instead to return to Egypt! That was the ultimate manifestation of a lack of faith in the Almighty. Rather than allowing the people to return, thus destroying YHVH’s nation and His reputation, YHVH forced the people to roam the desert for 38 more years until that generation died in the wilderness. YHVH would not allow that fallen generation to inherit His land, and He would not allow the land to be defiled by unfaithfulness. The price to enter the land changed from membership in the nation of Israel, to the blood price of the entire generation that left Egypt.
The sixth aliyah of this parasha begins the discussion of the cities of refuge, six cities that would be a safe haven for anyone who accidentally killed another. Anyone convicted of murder – based on the testimony of at least two witnesses – had to be put to death. No other punishment was available. In the case of an accidental killing, there had to be a way to avoid death at the hands of the victim’s family; at least until the trial. The accused could enter one of the six cities of refuge – three on each side of the Yarden – and were protected until they could be tried. If they were found guilty, they faced the normal punishment for murder. If they were found innocent, the victim’s family could not harm him as long as he stayed in the city. If he left the city, however, and the family avenged the death by killing him, they would not be guilty of murder. This amounted to a form of house arrest until the cohen ha’gadol (high priest) serving at the time of his trial died. Then he would be free to return to his home in peace. But why would someone who has been judged an innocent man be subject to punishment? If the high priest was new to his position, it could be many years before the man could return home. The answer ties us again to an earlier portion of the book of B’midbar.
The shedding of innocent blood, even by accident, defiles the land. Once the land is defiled, only blood can make atonement. In the case of a murderer, it must be his own blood. In the case of the accidental killer, the death of the cohen ha’gadol will make atonement. Once the man has been atoned, he may return to his land without defiling it. The blood is no longer upon him. But what does this have to do with anything earlier in the book? When the first generation of Israel refused to enter the land, thus defiling themselves and their covenant with YHVH, they could not enter. Had they been allowed into the land, they would have defiled it. As YHVH says in this Torah portion, only blood can make atonement. Therefore, the people of Israel had to die to make atonement and allow the next generation to enter. YHVH’s rules often fit multiple circumstances, differing only by size and degree. A single person killing a fellow man can only get atonement through blood. A generation of people killing a covenant promise can only get atonement through blood. A planet of people guilty of all manner of violations of Torah, can only get atonement through blood. What price will be required from the final generation when the time of judgment comes?