Parashat Masei

The Limits Of Power And Conquest

The book of Numbers, full of bloodshed and division, ends with a call for unity and a discussion of the sanctity of life.

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One who spills the blood of man, by man shall his blood be spilled; because in the image of God did He make man (Genesis 9:6).

Similarly, before entry into their land, Israel is reminded that the basis of any society must be respect for life.

Chizkuni (R. Chizkiya ben Manoach, mid 13th Century) goes further. Bloodshed was prohibited to all humankind beginning with Adam (Sanhedrin 56b). However, once humans were given the power over animal life, they might believe they have dominion over all life--then it is a small step, psychologically, to allow suicide and murder. Therefore, Noach must be reminded that his control over life is limited.

We might apply the same idea to the conclusion of the book of Bamidbar. The Children of Israel are commanded to possess the land and prepare for warfare against the inhabitants and their idolatry:

And you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you, and you shall destroy all their symbols, and all their molten images shall you destroy, and all their high places shall you demolish. And you shall take possession of the land and then settle in it, for to you have I given the land to possess it (Numbers 33:52-53).

The Torah calls for all-out, uncompromising war to claim the promised land. But, this necessary and justified bloodshed can make a people callous towards the value of human life. Thus, the Torah must reiterate the laws of murder, demanding that even involuntary manslaughter be expiated.

In this context of sensitivity to others, we might further understand the closing sequence of Bamidbar dealing with the marriage of the daughters of Tzelofechad, and relates the last verse in the parsha to these laws:

These are the commandments and the statutes that Hashem commanded by the hand of Moshe to the Children of Israel in the plains of Moav by the Jordan before Jericho (36:13).

Because of the division of the land according to the tribes, intermarriage between the tribes in this generation is forbidden. Although necessary, the result is division among the Children of Israel. The Talmud (Taanit 30b) says that when this decree was repealed at the end of this generation, the day of reconciliation between the tribes, the 15th of Av, was proclaimed a holiday. Separation within Israel, no matter the circumstances, is a tragedy. 

When a people has known killing, they must be reminded of the value of human life. When they have known internal division, they must be reminded all the more.

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Rabbi Avraham Fischer

Avraham Fischer is a rabbi at Darche Noam Institutions.