Yitro, Mishpatim, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1

Moses on south frieze of Supreme Court building, by Adolph Weinman

The “Ten Commandments”1 are fundamental precepts, good for all time, right? Well, maybe.

The first four of the ten commandments (which appear in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, in the book of Exodus, and again in Va-etchanan in the book of Deuteronomy) are religious injunctions. They prohibit having other gods,2 making or worshiping idols, swearing falsely in the name of God,3 and working on the holy seventh day of the week, Shabbat. These four commandments are hardly universal precepts, since they do not apply to people with other religions (including atheism).

The next six commandments, however, are about ethics, i.e. the right way to treat other people:

  1. Honor your father and your mother …
  2. You must not kill.
  3. You must not commit adultery.
  4. You must not steal.
  5. You must not testify falsely.
  6. You must not covet …

Not all of these commandments are easy to interpret outside the context of the social customs of the Ancient Near East.  Does that mean they are morally relative, guides only to correct behavior within the ancient Israelite culture? Or are they nevertheless moral absolutes, still relevant today?

This week’s post examines commandments five and six. Next week, Part 2 will assess commandments seven and eight. The week after that, Part 3 will explore the last two commandments.


The Fifth Commandment

Kabeid your father and your mother, so that your days will be long on the earth that God, your God, is giving to you. (Exodus/Shemot 20:12)

kabeid (כַּבֵּד) = honor, treat as important. (From the same root as the adjective kabeid, כַּבֵּד = heavy, weighty, impressive, oppressive, dull, hard.)

According to traditional commentary, if you honor your parents, your children will honor you.4 That means your adult children will make sure you are well fed and housed when you can no longer manage on your own, and therefore you will indeed live longer. (No wonder having children is a top priority in the Torah!)5

Maimonides wrote that in addition to making sure our parents have food, clothing, and shelter, we must be indulgent with them if they have dementia. When adult children can no long bear the strain of tending such a parent, they may hire others to take care of them.6

Honoring one’s parents goes beyond providing for their physical needs in the Torah. Next week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, assigns the death penalty to the crime of hitting parents, or even speaking ill of them.

And one who strikes his father or his mother shall certainly be put to death. (Exodus 21:15)

And mekaleil his father or his mother shall certainly be put to death. (Exodus 21:17)

mekaleil (מְקַלֵּל) = one who belittles, one who curses.

There is no penalty in the Hebrew bible for a parent hitting or belittling a child. Hitting children in order to discipline them is considered a good deed in the book of Proverbs.7 Elsewhere parents are required to teach their children certain laws and traditions from the Torah,8 but the bible is silent about child abuse or neglect.9

This silence reflects the culture of the Ancient Near East, in which underage children were the property of their fathers and had no rights of their own. In other cultures, child abuse and neglect are considered criminal, and the ethical standard is for parents to treat their children with kindness and respect them as individuals, while still teaching them acceptable behavior in their society.

The fifth commandment implies that we should treat our parents with respect whether they deserve it or not.10 This may be a worthy aspiration, but when parents have seriously abused or neglected children while they were growing up, honoring and taking care of these bad parents could make the lives of their adult children unbearable.

I believe the fifth commandment should not be a universal ethical rule as it stands. I would amend it this way:

Parents must respect their children, and children must respect their parents.

The Sixth Commandment

The Servants of Absalom Killing Amnon, Heinrich Aldegrever, 1540

Lo tirtzach. (Exodus 20:13)

lo tirtzach (לֺא תִרְצָח) = you must not kill without a legal sanction. (From the verb ratzach, רָצַח.)

This commandment is sometimes translated into English as “You shall not kill” and sometimes as “You shall not murder”. Does the Torah distinguish between accidental manslaughter and deliberate murder?

The death penalty is prescribed only for pre-meditated murder in next week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim.

One who strikes down a man so that he dies, he [the one who struck] shall certainly be put to death. [However, if it was] one who did not stalk him, but God let [the one who died] fall by his hand, I will appoint a place for you where he can flee. But if someone plots against his fellow to kill him with cunning, from [even] my altar you shall take him to die. (Exodus 21:12-14)

More specifics are given in the Torah portion Masey in the book of Numbers, which also uses a form of the same verb as in the sixth commandment: ratzach.11 Here God orders the Israelites to set aside six cities of refuge once they have conquered Canaan.

… cities of refuge they shall be for you, and a rotzeiach who struck down a life inadvertently will flee there.” (Numbers 35:11)

rotzeiach (רֺצֵַח) = someone who commits either  premeditated murder or involuntary manslaughter. (The participle form of the verb ratzach).

Then God tells Moses:

But if one struck with an iron implement and [the victim] died, he is a rotzeiach and the rotzeiach must certainly be put to death. … Or [if] in enmity he struck him with his hand and [the victim] died, he shall certainly be put to death. (Numbers 35:16, 35:21)

Someone who kills accidentally can live in exile; someone who kills deliberately (either out of hatred or by using an implement well-known to cause death) gets the death penalty. The executioner, in that case, is the “redeemer of bloodshed”, a designated avenger from the family of the deceased victim. The commandment against killing does not apply to the avenger.

Nor does it apply to soldiers who kill enemies in battle. The Torah never criticizes the Israelites for starting a war, regardless of the reason. Moses only rules (in the Torah portion Shoftim in Deuteronomy) that when the Israelites attack a town outside Canaan merely in order to expand their territory or get some booty, they must first offer the option of “peaceful” surrender.

And if [the town] answers you with peace and opens itself to you, then all the people found inside it will be yours for forced labor, and they must serve you. But if it does not make peace with you, and does battle, and you besiege it, and God places it in your hand, then you shall put all its males to the edge of the sword. However, the women and the little ones and the livestock and everything that is in the town, all its plunder you shall plunder for yourself … However, in the towns of these peoples [Canaanites] which God, your God, is giving you as a hereditary possession, you shall not let a soul live. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 20:11-16)

These two approaches to conquest were considered ethical in the Ancient Near East. But today, an increasing number of people believe that even when a killing is legal, it may not be ethical.

Many people would agree with the commandment lo tirtzach, you must not kill without a legal sanction. But standards have changed for when it should be legal to kill someone. The death penalty is now banned in a majority of countries in the world, and is controversial in the United States.

War, on the other hand, is still an option for every nation. But some acts during war are now considered war crimes, and there is more interest in minimizing the deaths of non-combatants. Most people condone killing in self-defense, whether it is killing an individual who is about to kill you, or fighting a nation that has attacked yours. But is initiating a war justified if the purpose is to defend the citizens of an allied nation, or to defend a principle such as democracy?

A basic moral rule must be brief and express an ethical ideal, even if there are gray and cloudy areas in its application. The sixth commandment, which merely says “You must not ratzach” (You must not kill without a legal sanction) meets this requirement as it stands.

But I believe that too many types of killing have been legal, in both ancient Israelite and modern Western societies. An ethical ideal, in my opinion, would be more restricted. So I would like to propose this amended sixth commandment:

You must not kill except to prevent someone from being killed.


Next week I will address what the seventh and eighth commandments mean when they prohibit adultery and theft—then and now.

  1. Exodus 20:1 introduces what we call “the Ten Commandments” in English with “And God spoke all these devarim”. Devarim, דְּבָרִים = words, statements, things. In Deuteronomy, Moses calls the ten “commandments” the devar of God; devar is the singular of devarim.
  2. See my 2011 post Yitro: Not in My Face.
  3. See my 2014 post Yitro: The Power of the Name.
  4. E.g. the Book of Sirach, 3:1-16 (second century B.C.E.)
  5. In first-world countries today, the whole society pays various taxes to take care of its aged population through various taxes. Yet when old people can no longer manage certain tasks themselves, their adult children are still expected to meet some obligations.
  6. Maimonides (12th-century Moses ben Maimon or “Rambam”), Mishneh Torah, book 14, treatise 3, chapter 6:10, as quoted in Edward Hoffman, The Wisdom of Maimonides, Trumpeter, Boston, 2008, p. 114-115.
  7. Proverbs 13:24, 19:18, 22:15, 29:15.
  8. E.g. Exodus 13:8; Deuteronomy 6:6-7 and 11:19.
  9. One father, Jepthah/Yiptach, vows that if God gives him success in battle he will offer to God whatever comes out of his house first when he returns. He is dismayed when his daughter runs out to greet him. But this father is portrayed as foolish, not abusive. He immediately grants her request for a two-month postponement so she can “cry over her virginity”. The cautionary tale ends without clarifying whether Yiptach’s daughter was slaughtered at the altar or given to the local sanctuary. (Judges 11:30-35)
  10. See my 2015 post Yitro: The Heaviness of Honoring Parents. The Book of Sirach adds: Help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives; Even if he is lacking in understanding, show forbearance …”
  11. For more on the words ratzach and rotzeiach, see Marty Lockshin, “Does the Torah Differentiate between Murder and Killing?”, thetorah.com.


Masey—Inner Battle

Israelites arrive at “The Acacias” across the Jordan from Jericho

And God spoke to Moses on the plain of Moab at the Jordan at Jericho, saying: “Speak to the children of Israel, and you shall say to them:  When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, vehorashtem all the inhabitants of the land from before yourselves.  And you must destroy all their carved images, and all their cast-metal images you must destroy, and all their high worship places you must demolish.  Vehorashtem of the land and you must settle down in it yourselves; I have given the land to you lareshet it.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 33:51-53)

vehorashtem (וְהוֹרַשְׁתֶּם) = and you must take possession of, inherit; dispossess, drive out.  (A form of the verb yarash.)

lareshet (לָרֶשֶׁת) = to possess.  (Another form of the verb yarash.)

This communication combines two orders: take over all the Canaanites’ land, and eliminate all their places and objects of worship.  Carrying out these orders would clear the way for the Israelites to have their own nation-state and to establish their own exclusive religion.

The anthropomorphic God presented in the books of Exodus through Numbers does talk about taking the Israelites to be “his” own people.  This God-character is willing to disregard the needs of other peoples in order to give “his” people their own land.  And naturally “he” wants theirhis people’s exclusive devotion, with no distractions from other religions.

Yet some later passages in the Hebrew Bible posit one God who creates, rules, and administers justice to all the peoples of the earth.1  This early monotheism influences our ideas today (although some people still apply a different standard of justice to people of other nations compared to those born in their own nation).

If conquering a land and driving out its inhabitants does strike us as immoral, can we find any value in the God-character’s orders above?

Jordan River

One possibility is to read it as an allegory for how some individuals can consciously change when they want to move into a new way of life:

When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan — or, when have decided to cross the watery boundary between your old life and the new —

you must dispossess all the inhabitants of the land from before yourself — you must uproot all the old, habitual beliefs in the land of your mind.

And you must destroy all their carved images — and you must keep on examining your reactions and identifying the prejudices and myths they are based on, the ones you learned from your parents and other influences; and then replace them with your new insights —

and all their cast-metal images you must destroy — and you may need to give up some old possessions too, if they entrap you —

and all their high worship places you must demolish — and you must question what you once admired and stop worshipping your old idols.

You must take possession of the land and you must settle down in it — You must take conscious responsibility for your own mental habits.

I have given the land to you to take possession of it — God has given you a mind capable of self-reflection and conscious choice.

How many people marry a second person who has the same character flaw as the first?  How many people keep losing their jobs for the same reason?  How many people keep losing their tempers?  All real change requires a change inside, and it is hard work to keep fighting to pay attention and question yourself until your old habits have been mostly driven out.  (Even then, I find, the old habits lurk in the background, and may pop up again in a time of weakness.)

May more and more human beings dedicate themselves to these inner battles for new lives.  And may outer battles of conquest among nations cease as we discard the myths that fueled them and invent peaceful resolutions.

(Based on an essay I wrote in July 2010.)

  1. The book of Deuteronomy combines monotheistic statements with the assumption that God prefers the Israelites and expects more from them. But the second half of Isaiah not only declares that there is only one god, but also points toward a more universal god in 41:3, 45:5-7, and 45:20-22.

Masey: Stages of a Journey

Caravan, by James Tissot ca. 1900

The last Torah portion in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar begins:

These are the masey the Israelites when they departed from the land of Egypt in their troops by the power of Moses and Aaron.  Moses wrote down their departures for maseyhem at the word of God.  And these were the maseyhem for their departures:  (Numbers/Bemidbar 33:1-2)

masey (מַסְעֵי) = stages of the journey of.  (A form of the noun massa (מַסַּע) = breaking camp, travelling on, journeying, stage of a journey.  Derived from the root verb nasa (נָסַע) = pulled out, started out, uprooted.)

maseyhem (מַסְעֵיהֶם) = their stages of travel, their journeys.  (Another form of the noun massa.)

The Torah then lists 42 locations, from Ramses, the city where the Israelites assembled to leave Egypt, to the bank of the Jordan River, where the book of Numbers ends.  In the list are a few geographical notes to help locate the campsites, and three references to events that occurred on the way.

Which three events?

  1. At Rameses

Vayisu from Ramses on the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month.  On the day after Passover the Israelites departed with a high hand, before the eyes of all the Egyptians.  The Egyptians were burying those that God had struck down, every firstborn; and against their gods God had done justice.  (Numbers 33:3-4)

vayisu (וַיִּסְעוּ) = and they pulled out.  (A form of the verb nasa.)

The extra information about the first location, the Egyptian city of Ramses, is that the Israelites left the morning after the night of the tenth and final plague God inflicted on the Egyptians, the death of their firstborn;1 that the Egyptians no longer tried to stop them; and that their God was stronger than the Gods of the Egyptians.  Therefore the Israelites left proudly and openly, confident that God was on their side.

  1. At Refidim

Vayisu from Alush and they camped at Refidim, and there was no water for the people to drink.  (Numbers 33:14)

This sentence refers to a story in the book of Exodus/Shemot that begins:

Moses Strikes the Rock,
by James Tissot

Vayisu, the whole community of Israelites, from the wilderness of Sin for maseyhem at the word of God.  And they camped at Refidim and there was no water for the people to drink.  And they argued with Moses, and they said: “Give us water so we can drink!”  And Moses said to them: “Why do you argue with me?  Why do you test God?”  (Exodus 17:1-2)

At the end of the story, the Torah reports that the Israelites said:

“Is God among us or not?”  (Exodus 17:7)

Eleven times during their travels from Egypt to the Jordan River the Israelites complain about the conditions and reveal their lack of trust in God, Moses, or both.2  But this week’s Torah portion picks out only the time at Refidim, when  God tells Moses to address the problem by striking a rock with his staff, and water comes out.

Why pick this complaint over any of the other ten times3 the Israelites test the leadership of either God or Moses?  Why not include the time when Moses strikes the rock but fails to give God credit for the water?4  Or the confrontation at the Reed Sea?5  Or the complaint about food that led to God sending daily manna?6  Or the demand for the golden calf?7  Or the refusal to cross into Canaan at its southern border, which led to another 38 years in the wilderness?8

  1. At Hor

Vayisu from Kadeish and they camped at Hor the Mountain, at the edge of the land of Edom.  And Aaron the priest went up to Hor the Mountain at the word of God, and he died there in the 40th year of the exodus of the Israelites from the land of Egypt, on the fifth month, on the first of the month.  And Aaron was 123 years old when he died at Hor the Mountain.  And the Canaanite, the king of Arad who lived in the Negev in the land of Canaan, heard of the coming of the Israelites.  (Numbers 33:37-40)

Both of Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron, die on the journey.  Both are leaders of the people, but only Aaron’s death is mentioned in the list.  It might be sexism, or it might be because his death establishes the succession of high priests.  Aaron’s oldest surviving son, Elazar, climbs the mountain with his father and Moses, and Aaron dies after Moses has removed his vestments and dressed Elazar in them.9

But why does the Torah portion Masey also mention the king of Arad?  In a brief story earlier in Numbers, this king hears of the approaching Israelites, attacks them, and takes some captives.

Then the Israelites vowed a vow to God and said: “If you actually give this people into our hands, then we will dedicate their towns to destruction.”  And God listened to the voice of the Israelites and gave [them] the Canaanites …  (Numbers 21:2-3)

They were testing God again, but not complaining.  In the Torah, dedicating something captured in battle to destruction means dedicating the whole battle to God instead of keeping some booty for personal benefit.  Perhaps the Torah mentions the king of Arad here to show that the Israelites are not always rebellious; once in a while they dedicate everything to God.

Not at Mount Sinai

Why does the Torah pick these three events, and no others—not even what happened at Mount Sinai?  The Torah portion merely says:

Vayisu from Refidim and they camped in the wilderness of Sinai.  Vayisu from the wilderness of Sinai and they camped at Kivrot Hata-avah.  (Numbers 33:15-16)

Yet at Mount Sinai the Israelites experience the presence of God in a revelation full of smoke, fire, thunder, and earthquake.10  God gives them the Ten Commandments, first in a voice only Moses can bear to hear, then engraved on  pair of stone tablets, twice.11  At Mount Sinai the Israelites believe Moses will never return from the mountaintop, and worship Golden Calf.12  At Mount Sinai the Israelites make covenants with God, verbal and sacrificial, and their elders see God’s feet.13  At Mount Sinai they craft a portable tent-sanctuary so God will dwell among them.14

During their year in the wilderness at Mount Sinai, the attitude of the Israelites toward God swings between terror and total devotion, with a side-trip into ecstatic idol-worship.

The three events mentioned in this week’s list, however, focus on the attitude of the Israelites toward God when they are on their journey, not pausing in ecstasy.  At Ramses the Israelites who leave with Moses are confident that God can and will protect them.  At Refidim they doubt that God is with them.  At Hor they accept their high priest’s successor (a sign that they will also accept Moses’ successor), and they rededicate themselves to God.

No Itinerary

Vayisu from the hills of the Avarim and they camped in the deserts of Moab, by the Jordan at Jericho.  (Numbers 33:48)

The list ends where the Israelites are waiting to cross the river into Canaan, their “promised land”.

An itinerary is a planned route for a journey, listing locations and transportation between them in the order one has determined.   But Moses’ list in Masey covers only the locations the Israelites have already camped at.  It follows their route in the past, not the future.  The added comments on three events mark their attitudes toward God in the past, but do not predict their attitudes toward God in the future.

When the Israelites travel, they cannot even predict where their next campsite will be.  For each stage of their journey, they follow the God’s pillar of cloud and fire to their next stopping place.15


I am preparing now to go on a journey through Europe to Israel, crossing two seas to get to the same land the Israelites in the Torah reached by crossing the Jordan River.  My husband and I have been longing to take this trip since the turn of the century, and now we can finally do it.

We have made an itinerary.  We are paying for our reservations for the first three months, and making tentative plans in case we can extend our trip to nine months.  But even when you have pre-paid for airfare and lodging, things happen along the way; you do not really know where you will find yourself.  The definitive list is the one you make at the end of your travels.


What will happen to this blog while we are moving our things into storage, then moving ourselves from country to country?

This is the last new blog post I will have time to write for months.  Knowing that makes me wistful.  But every week I plan to look at the posts I have written on that week’s Torah portion over the last eight years, and choose one of my favorites.

Then I will e-mail the link to you, my readers.  From time to time I will add my photos of old synagogues and other relevant sites in Europe and Israel.  I will keep you posted on the masey of Melissa and Will Carpenter!

  1. Exodus 12:1-32. Exodus 12:37 begins: Vayisu, the Israelites, from Ramses …
  2. I am not counting the times in the book of Numbers when only a small subset of Israelites complained: Miriam and Aaron in Numbers 12:1-2, 250 Levites in 16:1-11, two Reuvenites in 16:12-5, and Moses and Aaron in Numbers 20:10-12.
  3. The other ten times are Exodus 14:10, Exodus 15:23-24, Exodus 16:2-3, Exodus 32:1-10, Numbers 11:1-2, Numbers 11:4-20, Numbers 14:1-4, Numbers 17:6-15, Numbers 20:2-5, and Numbers 21:4-7.
  4. Numbers 20:2-13.
  5. Exodus 14:10-12.
  6. Exodus 16:1-4.
  7. Exodus 32:1-10.
  8. Numbers 14:1-4.
  9. Numbers 20:22-29.
  10. Exodus 19:16-20, 20:15-18.
  11. Exodus 20:1-18, 31:18, 32:15-19, 34:1-4, and 34:27-28.
  12. See my post Ki Tissa: Making an Idol Out of Fear.
  13. Exodus 19:1-9, 24:3-13. See my posts Mishpatim & Ki Tissa: A Covenant in Writing, and Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.
  14. See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.
  15. Exodus 13:20-22 and 40:36-38.


Masey: Magic of an Egyptian Province

The Torah does not name the pharaoh in its story about the exodus from Egypt. But some scholars guess the story is set in the 13th century B.C.E., during the reign of Rameses II. At that time the land of Canaan was a remote province of the Egyptian empire. Canaanite vassals ruled individual villages and their surrounding regions, but they reported to the Egyptian government in the provincial capital, Gaza. Egyptian garrisons were scattered around the province.

The two biggest powers then were the Egyptians and the Hittites. The capital of Egypt was in the Nile delta; the capital of Hatti was in present-day Turkey. Naturally the two empires fought over the land in between, until their kings, Rameses II and Hattusili III, made a peace treaty circa 1260 B.C.E. that froze the border. A long period of peace followed—as far as the Egyptians and Hittites were concerned. If one Canaanite vassal overthrew another, that was not their business.

In this week’s Torah portion, Masey (“Journeys”), the Israelites are preparing to cross the Jordan River and overthrow every ruler in the province of Canaan.

God spoke to Moses, saying: Command the Children of Israel, and you shall say to them: When you enter the land of Canaan, this is the land that will fall to you as a hereditary possession: the land of Canaan by its boundaries. Your southern limit shall be from the wilderness of Tzin next to Edom … (Numbers/Bemidbar 34:1-3) 

"Canaan" in Egyptian heiroglyphs, Merneptah Stele
“Canaan” in Egyptian heiroglyphs, Merneptah Stele

Canaan (כְּנָעַן) = a territory roughly including present-day Israel, Lebanon, and part of Syria—but not Jordan. (Probably from the Egyptian name Kanana, though it may also be related to the Hebrew verb root kana (כּנע) = humble, subdue, subjugate. Much later, in the Second Temple period, a kinani (כְּנַעֲנִי) was a merchant or tradesman rather than a Canaanite.)

God promises to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants in the book of Genesis,and to the descendants of Abraham’s grandson Jacob in the book of Exodus.

When God delineates the boundaries of the promised land in this week’s Torah portion, Masey (“Journeys”), the northern boundary is about the same as the boundary between the Egyptian and Hittite empires, as set by their treaty. Like the province of Canaan, Israel is to include the coastline from Wadi el-Arish all the way to a Mount Hor north of Byblos (now the Lebanese city of Jubayl). (This is different from the Mount Hor east of Edom where Aaron dies.)

Canaan in Numbers 34
Canaan in Numbers 34

The northern boundary goes from the Mediterranean to a point deep in present-day Syra. The eastern boundary swings around to the Sea of Kinneret and follows the Jordan River to the Dead Sea, like the eastern boundary of Canaan in the 13th century B.C.E.

The Israelites never rule the entire province. But they are so attached to Canaan as their promised land, that Moses gets upset in last week’s Torah portion (Mattot) when two and a half tribes want to settle on the east side of the Jordan River, in the land the Israelites recently captured from a pair of Amorite kings.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses makes the distinction between Canaan and the land east of the Jordan again.

And Moses commanded the Children of Israel, saying: This is the land that you will divide for hereditary property by lot, that God commanded to give to the nine tribes and the half tribe. For the tribe of the Reubenites…the tribe of the Gadites… and the half-tribe of Menashe, they have taken their hereditary possession. The two tribes and the half-tribe took their hereditary possession from across the Jordan at Jericho, eastward toward the sunrise. (Numbers 34:13-15)

Why must the land promised to the Israelites be no more nor less than the Egyptian province of Canaan?

One answer is that the Israelites are Canaanites. Some archaeologists suspect the exodus was a literary invention, and that although a small band of slaves may have run away from Egypt, the majority of ethnic Israelites lived in the hills of eastern Canaan all along. When the kingdom of Judah conquered more of Canaan during the reign of King Josiah (Yoshiyahu), 600 years later, they rewrote some of the Torah to justify their expansionism.

The Torah, on the other hand, implies that Israelites are Canaanites because an extended family of 70 (plus wives and servants) go down from Canaan to Egypt, and 430 years later in the exodus 600,000 men (plus wives and children and a multitude of like-minded Egyptians) come back up. During their four centuries in Egypt, the Israelites retain their identity and language. Returning to Canaan, therefore, is returning home.

But they do not return to rejoin their fellow Canaanites. The god of Israel orders them to conquer the current population and drive them out of their towns, so that the people and religion of Israel will rule the land. The Torah gives two kinds of justifications for taking over Canaan. One is that Canaanite religious practices are evil in God’s eyes, and therefore must be eliminated. The other is that the Israelites, as descendants of Abraham, are supposed to be a blessing to the rest of the world. Presumably part of this blessing is setting an example of a country run according to God’s laws.

Some mystical commentary claims that the promised land had to include Jerusalem. According to these mystics, the Temple Mount is also Mount Moriyah, where Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac. This is the holiest spot in the world. (Mount Sinai, which lies outside Canaan, is somehow less important!)

I think all of these explanations ignore the power of myth and legend. As an American child, I grew up reading English stories full of menhirs, dolmens, fairy circles, and henges, where magical things happened to previously ordinary people. When I visited England as an adult, it moves me to tears to see these legendary structures cropping up in the woods and in the middle of farms. This was the world of the stories I grew up with, the world my imagination lived in. Every day I spent in the English and Welsh countryside filled me with awe. I can only imagine the awe I will feel when I finally get to Israel and see the places I keep reading about in the Torah as an adult.

The ancient Israelites, whether they stayed in Canaan or migrated to Egypt and back, grew up with the legends that found their way into the book of Genesis. Imagine what it would mean to them to see Mount Moriah, the grove of Mamre, the cave of Makhpelah, Beeir-sheva, or Beeir-lachai-roi.

Never underestimate the power of story. It can turn a rural Egyptian province into the Promised Land.

Masey & Pinchas: Daughters and Loyalty

As the book of Numbers/Bemidbar comes to an end, the Israelites are camped on the east bank of the Jordan, ready to begin their conquest of Canaan. Moses knows he will die before they cross the river, so he is handing down rules that will only apply after the people settle the new land and switch to a different economy. Instead of being nomads, most of the Israelites will become farmers or ranchers in Canaan. Wealth will be measured in land rather than herds.

Last week I wrote about God’s directions in the Torah portion Pinchas on how to divide up Canaan into hereditary properties—after the Canaanites have been driven off their land. (See Pinchas: Fairness). First Moses takes a census of men aged 20 and older. Every man counted in that census will get a tract of land in Canaan for his household. His land will be in the district of his clan, and his clan’s district will be in the territory allocated to his tribe.

Women, of course, do not count. Ancient Israelite society was patriarchal, and women were dependents. Apart from their personal effects, women’s possessions were nominal. In a marriage contract, any property that a woman’s father assigned to her was passed directly to her husband. If her husband died or divorced her, “her” possessions became the property of her sons. Women did not inherit, and if they were given land, they did not control it. They belonged to the clan and tribe of whichever man supported them, and only men could be leaders in a clan.

Yet in the Torah portion Pinchas, five women take a bold and independent action. The daughters of Tzelofchad come to Moses and the assembly of all-male leaders at the very entrance of the Tent of Meeting. They ask for the property that would have gone to their father, if he had lived long enough to be counted in Moses’ census.

Why should the name of our father be removed from his family because he had no son? Give us property amidst the brothers of our father. (Numbers/Bemidbar 27:4)

The women are careful to ask for property not for their own sake, but in order to perpetuate their father’s name. Moses checks with God, who replies:

Rightly the daughters of Tzelofchad speak; you shall certainly give them possession of a hereditary property amidst the brothers of their father, and you shall make the property of their father pass over to them. And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a man dies and has no son, then you shall make his property pass over to his daughters. (Numbers 27:7-8)

God’s answer promotes women from chattels to second-class citizens who can inherit land—but only if their father dies without sons. This solution rescues women who would otherwise be dependent on the goodwill of distant male relatives. The Torah never praises independence, but it does praise compassion for the unfortunate, and a woman without a father, husband, brother, or son to support her is considered unfortunate. A side-effect of the new law was that a daughter who inherited and remained unmarried would have a financial independence no other women possessed. But the Torah assumes all women marry and have sons.

This assumption raises an issue about the daughters of Tzelofchad in this week’s double Torah portion, at the end of Masey (“Journeys”). The heads of other clans in the Gilad branch of the tribe of Menasheh come to Moses and say:

God commanded my lord to give the land, by lot, as hereditary property for the children of Israel; and my lord was commanded by God to give the property of Tzelofchad, our brother, to his daughters. But if they become wives to any of the sons of the [other] tribes of the children of Israel, then their property will be removed from the property of our fathers, and it will be added onto the property of the tribe that they will belong to; so it will be removed from our allotted property. (Numbers 36:2-3)

In other words, if a daughter who inherited land married a man from another tribe, then she and her land would automatically become her husband’s property—and therefore the property of her husband’s tribe. These men identify strongly with their own tribe, Menasheh, and with the Gilad branch of the tribe. Any reduction in the amount of land under the control of the Gilad clans of Menasheh seems like a personal loss to them.

Moses approves of their sentiment. He does not stop to check with God this time, but he answers the men in God’s name.

This is the word that God commanded for the daughters of Tzelofchad, saying: They may become wives to whoever is good in their eyes; yet only within the clan of the tribe of their father they shall become wives. And landed property shall not go around for the children of Israel from tribe to tribe, for each man shall daveik to the landed property of the tribe of his fathers. And every daughter coming into possession of landed property from the tribes of the children of Israel, she shall become a wife to someone from the clan of the tribe of her father, so that each of the children of Israel shall possess the landed property of his fathers. (Numbers 36:6-7)

daveik  = cling to, stick to, be attached to; catch up with

The idea of clinging to your ancestral land is so important that Moses repeats it.

The property will not go around from one tribe to another tribe, because each man shall daveik to his hereditary property in the tribes of the children of Israel. (Numbers 36:9)

The Hebrew Bible uses the verb daveik when physical things stick to each other, and when one person pursues and overtakes another. But daveik is also used when one person is devoted to another, and when it sets out the ideal that the Israelites should cling to God with loyal devotion. The only time the Bible uses a form of daveik to indicate a person’s attachment to land is in Numbers 36:7 and 36:9, translated above. But land here is not just real estate; it is the expression of family lineage and tribal loyalty.

Conquering Canaan could, theoretically, be an opportunity for the tribes of Israel to unite and become truly one people (as the thirteen colonies became the United States of America). However, the Torah tells men to cling to the property they inherit from their fathers, and to the territory of their tribe. My theory is that instead of viewing tribal loyalty as a threat to national loyalty, the way many nations do today, the Torah views tribal loyalty as good practice for for national loyalty. The more you cling to one thing, the more you become able to cling to something else.

Most of all, Moses repeats that everyone must love God. But does practicing  passionate attachment to another person, to a tribe, or to a country, make it easier to love God?

I grew up in an atheist household in 20th-century America. I have always valued independence more than loyalty. I love my husband and my son, and give them my passionate allegiance. But I have never been interested in loyalty to my ancestry, or hometown, or school, or state, or country. I have grown fond of several of the houses and yards where I have lived, but I still move and sell the property to strangers. Maybe I have not practiced attachment enough, and that is why I find it hard to become attached to God.

In the Torah, many of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness also find it hard to cling devoutly to God. The first generation of the exodus from Egypt frequently complains about the food and expresses a desire to abandon God and return to Egypt. When Moabites invite the second generation to worship Baal-Peor, most of the men quickly abandon any loyalty to their own god. (See my earlier post, Balak: Carnal Appetites.)  No wonder Moses encourages them to practice passionate loyalty, if only to their families and tribes!

If you have not practiced a lot of clinging, is there any other way to develop a love for God? In Chassidic Judaism of the last two centuries, a key aspiration is deveikut, attachment or clinging to God. The Chassidic masters recommended developing deveikut through personal prayer, meditation, and intention (though it also helps to learn from a wise rabbi).

But first a modern, independent person without a religious upbringing must decide whether deveikut is even desirable. And that includes figuring out what it is that we are calling “God”.

I wonder if my life would be easier if I had inherited my religion and my god. On the other hand, a good life is not necessarily easy.

Masey: Refuge from Compensation

This week’s Torah portion, Masey (“Journeys”), calls for the new land of Israel to be divided up into territories by tribe, with a special arrangement for Levites, who will not own land.  Forty-eight cities  must be set aside for the Levites, and six of these will be designated “cities of  refuge”.

Speak to the children of Israel, and you shall say to them:  When you cross the Jordan to the land of Canaan, you shall select cities for yourselves.  They will become cities of refuge for you, and a killer who strikes down a living soul inadvertently shall flee there.  The cities shall be for you a refuge from a go-eil, so the killer will not die until he has stood before the community for the legal ruling.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 35:10-12)

go-eil = a compensator; a redeemer or avenger; a person who is responsible for redressing the situation when a man’s life or land is taken

In the Torah, a go-eil is usually a male relative of a male victim.  When an Israelite man becomes a slave, a go-eil redeems him, freeing him by paying his owner.  When a man dies without heirs, his nearest male relative serves as a go-eil by making the widow pregnant, so her child will inherit the deceased man’s property and his “name” will continue.  When a man is killed, a “go-eil of the blood”  (go-eil hadam)  is responsible for correcting the situation by killing the killer.

Legally, execution by the “go-eil of the blood” is is not revenge, but rather a way to uphold the dignity and importance of the victim.  If no male relative is available to serve as the go-eil of the blood, the judges appoint one.

(What if the victim of enslavement or murder is a woman?  The Torah does give a few examples of redemption and retribution for female victims, but there is no go-eil in these cases.  The Torah reflects the culture of the time and place where it was written down, so it has different laws for men than for women.)

The Torah provides for six cities of refuge where a killer can flee to be safe from an over-eager go-eil until the community where the killing occurred passes sentence on the case.  If the verdict is murder, the go-eil may execute the death penalty, even if he has to enter a city of refuge to do it.  But what if the verdict is accidental manslaughter?

If in an instant, without enmity, he knocked someone down, or threw down upon him any implement, without premeditated malice … then the community shall rescue the killer from the hand of the go-eil of the blood, and the community shall return him to his city of refuge where he had fled.  And he shall stay in it until the death of the high priest … and after the death of the high priest the killer may return to his land-holding. (Numbers 35:22, 25, 28) 

Thus a man who accidentally causes another’s death receives a different sentence. He must leave his own land, and live in a city of refuge, where the go-eil is not allowed to harm him.  The killer must not leave his city of refuge until the high priest of Israel dies.

Traditional commentary offers three reasons for this restriction.  One is that it preserves the killer’s life by protecting him from being attacked by a vengeful go-eil.  The Talmud takes the idea of protection further by teaching that the refugee is given a place to live in the city of refuge, and he does not have to pay taxes to the Levites.

A  second reason for the restriction is that since taking a life is such an awful deed, even an inadvertent killer should be punished.  So he is exiled from his home, his land, his friends and neighbors.  This makes a “city of refuge” more like a city of imprisonment (though it is a very nice prison, where he can have a normal life within the city limits).

A third reason is that the Levites who run the city, and are presumably spiritually elevated by their career of serving God,  will help the killer to repent and atone for his guilt over any possible negligence.

I would add that it would be hard to process your guilt and horror over causing someone’s death if you stayed in your old job and kept associating with the same people (who would now see you differently).  Moving to a new place would give you breathing room.  Although the residents of the city of refuge would all know why you were there, you would still get a chance to built a new identity, instead of pretending you were the same old person.

Then why does the exile in a city of refuge end when the high priest of all Israel dies?

Whatever reasons they give, traditional commentators agree that the high priest was a beloved figure whom everyone looked up to.  So his death was a national tragedy, touching everyone’s heart and moving everyone to see life differently.

Rambam (12-century commentator Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides) wrote that when the high priest dies, a go-eil of the blood loses his taste for vengeance, so it becomes safe for his relative’s killer to leave the city of refuge.

Other commentary views the death of the high priest as the final cleansing of the inadvertent killer’s soul, so he becomes sufficiently pure of heart to go back to his former life with the right attitude.

I’ve seen similar psychological transformations in my own congregation, P’nai Or of Portland, when our beloved founding rabbi, Aryeh Hirschfield of blessed memory, passed away unexpectedly.  So many of us felt overwhelmed by grief, we could have fallen apart as a community.  Instead, the shock and grief opened our hearts, so that many of us rose above petty personal issues and took on new challenges to keep the congregation going.  We had even more lay leadership for services, more learning, more support for each other.  And we are still going strong.

Although it is a psychological truth that the death of a beloved leader can transform people, we must not postpone our own transformations until our personal high priests die.  We need to begin changing our lives at once, just as an unintentional killer was required to flee to a city of refuge at once.  And we need to open our hearts so that any tragedy or insight might offer transformation.

Few of us are haunted by the knowledge that we accidentally killed a human being.  But many of us are haunted by other things we did in the past.  Our society rarely provides us with clearly defined refuges from our internal “go-eil of the blood”:  our recurrent guilt, self-accusation, or emotional memories.  We need to find our own cities of refuge, even if they are part-time or internal.

May each of us find a place of refuge from the past deeds that haunt us.  May each of us be able to use that refuge to look more honestly at our past and accept it with compassion toward ourselves.  And then may each of us be blessed with a big shift in perspective, opening up a new phase in our lives.