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.

Commentary on Parashat Masei, Numbers 33:1 - 36:13

Commentary on Parshat Masei, Numbers 33:1-36:13

The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.

The journey to the land of Canaan has been long and arduous. But, at long last, the conquest of the land is underway. Now, at the end of the journeys there are five utterances, which Hashem directs to Moshe (Moses), instructing the Children of Israel how to take possession of their land:

33:50-56–to dispossess all the inhabitants of the land and destroy all idolatry.

34:1-15–the boundaries of the land are described.

34:16-29–the tribal representatives who will help divide the land are listed.

35:1-8–the command to set aside cities for the tribe of Levi, who will not receive a regular portion in the land.

35:9-34–the cities of refuge for the unintentional murderer are designated, and the laws of murder and manslaughter are set forth.

Abrabanel (Don Yitzchak Abrabanel, 1437-1508) says that Moshe is thereby comforted: Although he will not lead the Children of Israel into the land, the conquest in its entirety is dependent upon the Divine utterances he will teach.

At first glance, it would seem that the cities of refuge are discussed here because six of the Levite cities were cities of refuge. Then, it is appropriate that the fuller discussion of the laws of murder and manslaughter follows. Still, the effect of concluding with these topics is unsettling.

Why end the tumultuous book of Bamidbar (Book of Numbers) — indeed, why prepare for entry into the land — on this note? Of the many commandments that are particular to the land of Israel, why “sign off” with the cities of refuge? Are there not more uplifting commandments to be dealt with than bloodshed? And, are there not other commandments more specifically land-of-Israel-oriented than murder?

And, what is the relevance of the marriage of the daughters of Zelophehad, which concludes the book (Ch. 36)?

Regarding murder, the Torah says:

And you shall not pollute the land in which you are, because blood is that which pollutes the land; and the land will not be atoned for the blood that is spilled in it except by the blood of the one who spilled it. And you shall not defile the land in which you settle, in the midst of which I dwell, for I Hashem dwell in the midst of the Children of Israel (35:33-34).

As the Ramban (Nachmanides) explains, although these laws apply everywhere, they are even more severe in the land of Israel, because of the Divine Presence there. All human life must be cherished, because all human beings are created in the image of Hashem. Murder is deplorable in any society, and respect for human life must be the basis of any system of ethics.

But, if innocent blood is spilled in the land of Israel, this desecrates the bond between Hashem and the land. Often, the Torah speaks of the land of Israel as an organic entity: it reacts by rejecting immorality in its most basic forms, such as sexual immorality (Leviticus 18:25-28), idolatry (Deuteronomy 11:16-17), and bloodshed, in our passage.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) sees a parallel between this passage and the commandments given to Noach after the Flood. Mankind’s emergence from the Ark was a precursor of the Children of Israel’s leaving the wilderness–Israel prepares to inhabit the promised land just as Noach and his descendants prepared to inhabit the earth. Humanity, from that point on, was permitted to use both vegetable and animal life as it saw fit, but they were cautioned against bloodshed:

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 Zelofechad, 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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