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  • July 26, 2014

    Mas-ei, Numbers 33:1-36:13

    Death, Thou Shalt Die

    D'var Torah By: Rabbi Richard A. Block

    The end of the wilderness sojourn of the wandering Israelites approaches as the Book of Numbers reaches its conclusion. In Parashat Mas-ei, the Torah looks backward and ahead. Summarizing forty years of marches and encampments since the Exodus from Egypt requires almost a full chapter. This travelogue is detailed, but without elaboration. Moses's version of the events that transpired in those places and his attempt to distill their lessons will be the main endeavor of Deuteronomy. Here, only the death of Aaron at the ripe age of one hundred and twenty-three years is mentioned.

    The bulk of the portion anticipates the Israelites' entry to the land of Canaan and lays out initial steps to be taken as they establish their national home in that land of promise. This includes defining the land's outer boundaries and apportioning it among the ancestral tribes, except for the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, who had elected to settle east of the Jordan River, and the landless Levites, for whom special provision was to be made. The latter were assigned forty-eight towns and the surrounding pastures to be carved out of the other tribes' allotments in proportion to their relative sizes.

    The Torah turns next to a core aspect of criminal law: homicide. Six of the Levite towns were to be designated as "cities of refuge to which a manslayer who has killed a person unintentionally may flee" and therein find protection from "the blood-avenger . . . so that the manslayer may not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly" (Numbers 35:11-12). The Torah is well aware that not every killing is premeditated and it recognizes a moral and legal distinction between murder-taking a life with intent or reckless disregard of the consequences of one's actions, and manslaughter-a death resulting from an accident or negligence.

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