Parshat Matot Masei
It’s easy to imagine that from a biblical perspective the demand is simple: God lays out the laws; the job of the people is to live by them.
But the book of Bemidbar (also called Numbers) teaches that things are not so simple. As the Israelites wander in the wilderness for 39 years, we are shown case after case in which neat legal distinctions are smudged and sharp lines are elusive. In each case, God shows Moses a workable, if imperfect, compromise.
The conclusion of Bemidbar, which we read this week, drives home the point that the need for compromise will never end. The parsha presents a somewhat-awkward solution to a problem that has arisen with the law.
What earns this passage its pride of place is that the problem itself was a byproduct of the solution to an earlier problem. The comfortable assurance that loose ends are tied up gives way to an uneasy feeling that more issues will arise, and that their solutions will create yet more complications.
The original problem had to do with the division of the land among the tribes of Israel. Each tribe was to have its own territory, with portions passed down from fathers to sons so that the territory would remain with the tribe in perpetuity.
In last week’s portion, a group of sisters challenged this law, saying, “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27:4.) Moses consulted with God and, to the delight of contemporary readers, the petition of the sisters was granted.
But now, the men of the sisters’ tribe are concerned. According to the customs of the times, when a couple married, the woman moved to the man’s home, and the family they created became part of his tribe.
If a daughter were to inherit her father’s land and then marry someone from a different tribe, to which tribe’s territory would her land belong? If she — and her land — became part of her husband’s tribe, then her own tribe’s holding would be permanently diminished. Allowing a daughter to inherit her father’s land turned out to threaten the entire system of tribal territories.
Moses again consults with God, who proposes this solution: A daughter who inherits land from her father must limit her choice of marriage partner to someone from her own tribe. The sisters accept this compromise, though it does not sit quite as comfortably for some contemporary readers.
Throughout Bemidbar we encounter situations in which compromise must bridge the gap between a legal absolute and the messy realities of life. Here are some questions that come up:
The law is clear that vows to God — for example, promises to give charity made at moments of crisis — must not be broken. But what happens if someone is unable to fulfill a vow, or if they are prevented from doing so?
The appropriate consequences of crimes may be stated precisely, but what can be done about the uncertainty of hidden wrongdoing and betrayal?
And how do we handle unintentional transgressions that have terrible consequences?
Our portion discusses the case of the accidental manslayer. Though he is technically innocent of murder, the reality of the situation is that a person died by his hand. The family’s grief and rage, the community’s sense of imbalance and its need for restoration, might be just as overwhelming as in a case of premeditated murder. It is impossible for life to go on as though nothing has happened.
To deal with this messy problem, the Israelites are commanded to designate “cities of refuge” to which a manslayer is to flee and live out his days, guaranteeing him protection from vigilante justice but condemning him to possibly permanent exile.
Several examples of laws with blurry edges involve women, and this is not an accident. In the Bible, women have full moral agency, combined with less than full autonomy. In our day, when women and men are equally autonomous, some of these compromises are moot.
But full autonomy eludes everyone: The accidental manslayer is powerless to meet his own moral standard, and in an earlier chapter we read about men who take vows that they are powerless to fulfill.
In Bemidbar, we learn that the hard work of figuring out how to live right takes place in the gap between the ideal and the actual. Moses has the unimaginable luxury of bringing his problems to God, and God is forthcoming with compromises.
What about us?
The ending teaches that there will always be a need for more compromises. We might proclaim a false fundamentalism that denies the teachings of Bemidbar by insisting that all boundaries are clear and permanent, or we might give up the project entirely, denying the validity of any distinctions.
Instead, may we have energy and humility for the constant and difficult process of reaching for communal standards about what is right and good as we make our way through this wilderness.
Rabbi Helen Plotkin teaches in the Swarthmore College Beit Midrash and at Mekom Torah, a Philadelphia-area Jewish community learning project. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.