Commentary on Parashat Masei, Numbers 33:1 - 36:13
Parashat Masei, the portion of journeys, begins with a recounting of the Israelites’ travels from slavery in Egypt to the borders of Israel. Yet within this re-telling of the Israelites’ trek comes a different journey: the path of a man-slayer into exile.
Powerful Priest and Accidental Killer
An entire chapter of the portion addresses the process by which an unintentional murderer is sent out of the community for his own protection. A person convicted of accidentally taking a life is sent to one of six cities of refuge. He lives there, guarded from his victim’s avenging relatives, until the natural death of the high priest (Numbers 35). If an exiled murderer wants to return home, his only recourse is to pray for the High Priest’s death.
Why the connection between a powerful priest and an accidental killer? Strikingly, the Mishnah tells us that the high priest’s mother is also connected to the exiled man-slayers:
Therefore, the mothers of the high priests supply (the unintentional murderers) with food and clothing, in order that they won’t pray that their sons die. (Mishnah Makkot 2:6)
The image of the High Priest’s mother distributing food and clothing to exiled murderers is unexpected–and incomplete. The text does not fully capture the enormity of her project. Think of the logistics: one woman providing basic necessities for exiled murderers in six different cities. Did she have helpers? It seems that the High Priest’s mother ran the equivalent of a relief organization.
Two Giving Women
The Mishnah presents the mother’s role in a self-serving manner: she cares for the exiles because she knows it is necessary for the safety of her son. Yet could the High Priest’s mother have another motivation for dedicating her life of social prestige and privilege to those forced to flee their homes?
This story is reminiscent of one we’ve heard before. When baby Moses was endangered by Pharaoh’s decree to kill all first-born Israelite boys, it was an Egyptian princess, the daughter of Pharaoh, who sheltered and nurtured him. Both the mother of the High Priest and the daughter of Pharaoh were women of status who protected the lives of the vulnerable.
In the case of baby Moses, the Israelites were targets of direct oppression. They were taught that their lives were disposable in Egyptian society. In the case of the accidental murderers, the exiled are products of an imperfect legal system: the only means to protect their safety was exclusion. Pharaoh’s daughter and the mother of the High Priest challenged these political and social indignities, preventing the vulnerable from feeling like society’s refuse.
These women have something to teach us.
Living with Dignity
Around the world, millions of people are taught, purposefully and implicitly, by violence and poverty, by being denied access to education, health care, and fair labor, that they are disposable.
Pharaoh’s daughter’s action toward baby Moses was in contradiction to the harsh and violent oppression of Egypt toward the Israelites. Through her aid, the mother of the High Priest brought dignity to the exiled and recognized the injustice of the social system that enforced his exclusion.
This week, the Israelites recount their passage from a place of slavery to a land of promise. Embedded inside is another narrative, the story of a woman embodying care and responsibility for the banished. She models for us the true journey of our people: creating a sustainable freedom with dignity for all.
This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.