City and Country

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley






This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Dr. William Major z"l.





By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





The Israelites' 40-year sojourn in the wilderness draws to a close with the conclusion of Sefer Bamidbar.  Our parasha, Parashat Masei, reviews every single journey and encampment in the desert and describes the delineation and allocation of Eretz Yisra'el, the Land of Israel.  Its twin and predecessor, Parashat Mattot, sets forth the lines of battle for invading the land.  The book concludes with laws that guarantee the integrity of the family plots and the initial inheritance in Eretz Yisra'el.


Despite the excitement, we sense that even as the Jewish nation prepares for conquest and ownership, there is the anticipation of later destruction:


"If you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow to remain shall be barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land in which you live.  Then, I will do to you what I had planned to do them."  (33:55-56)


"You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land; and the land can have no expiation for the blood shed on it, except by the blood of the one who sheds it."  (35:33)


From the outset, the Jewish people are informed that residence in the land, ultimately, is provisional.  Only obedience to the Divine Writ will enable them to reside within it permanently.




Another interesting theme links the last two parashiyyot.  40 years of wandering end, not with the invasion of the land, but with the assignment of cities — on the Yarden's east bank for Re'uven, Gad, and half of Menasheh; and on both sides for Levi:


"This land shall be yours for an inheritance before God…  Build yourselves cities…"  (32:22-24)


And Moshe gave them the land by its cities, according to the boundaries of the land's cities, all around.  (32:33)


They renamed all the cities that they built.  (32:38)


"Instruct the Jewish people to assign, from their inheritance, cities for the Levites to dwell in."(35:2)


"Each shall assign cities to the Levites in proportion to the share of its inheritance."  (35:8)


Apparently, the city represents here the consummation of inheritance (and its loss symbolizes exile).  Therefore, it is interesting to see that the parasha eventually portrays city-dwelling itself as exile, when it introduces the unique sentence for involuntary manslaughter:


You shall provide cities of refuge… from the avenger, so that the murderer will not die before being brought to justice.  Six cities shall so be assigned.  Three cities shall be designated beyond the Yarden, and the other three shall be designated in the land of Kena'an; they shall serve as cities of refuge.  If the blood-avenger finds him outside the limits of his city of refuge… he has no bloodguilt on his account.  For he must remain in his city of refuge until the death of the Kohen Gadol… and you must not accept ransom in lieu of exile to a city of refuge.  (35:27-32)


Upon further investigation, we discover that every mention of a city in the two parashiyyot refers to both inheritance and dispossession.  Re'uven and Gad choose not to inherit Kena'an proper – so they are to build and dwell in cities instead.  The Levites "receive no inheritance with the Israelites" (26:62) – so they receive cities instead.  The accidental killer, who "pollutes the land" with blood, loses his rights to the land; instead, he finds himself exiled to one of the six cities of refuge, part of the Levites' portion — "The cities which you will give to the Levites are the six cities of refuge, and in addition, you must give forty-two cities" (35:6).  The opening of our parasha broadens the equation.  We find forty-two encampments during the period of wandering, parallel to these forty-two Levitical cities – both the lot of a landless people:


"Forty-two cities" – these parallel the forty-two encampments, for the Jewish people were then wanderers; this is similar to the Levites, who have no share in the land, are given forty-two cities; so too the manslayer, who escapes [to the city of refuge] is a wanderer…


And this is just like what Yosef did to the Egyptians, so as to give them the status of wanderers: "Yosef moved the population into cities, from one end of Egypt to the other" (Bereshit 47:21).  (Commentary of the Keli Yakar, 35:6)




Indeed, we find that the first city mentioned in the Torah is built in response to the penalty of exile (Bereshit 4:8-17):


And Kayin spoke to Hevel his brother.  And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Kayin rose up against Hevel his brother and slew him.  And God said to Kayin: "Where is Hevel your brother?" And he said: "I know not; am I my brother's keeper?" And He said: "What have you done?  The voice of your brother's blood cries to Me from the ground.  And now, cursed are you from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand.  When you till the ground, it shall not henceforth yield to you its strength; a fugitive and a wanderer shall you be in the earth."  And Kayin said to God: "My punishment is greater than I can bear.  Behold, You have driven me out today from the face of the land, and from Your face I shall be hidden, and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth; and it will come to pass, that whoever finds me will slay me!"  And God said to him: "Therefore, whoever slays Kayin, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold."  And God set a sign for Kayin, so that anyone who found him would not strike him.  And Kayin went out from the presence of God, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden.  And Kayin knew his wife; and she conceived, and bore Chanokh; and he built a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, "Chanokh." 


As Rashi points out in last week's parasha, Kayin's fate, to wander the land, is the paradigm for the punishment meted out to the Jewish people for their failure at the sin of the spies:


God was incensed at Israel, and for forty years He made them wander in the wilderness.  (32:13)


"Made them wander" – the same wording [is found] regarding Kayin, "a fugitive and a wanderer."  (Rashi, ad loc.)


The sense of rootlessness that causes people to build cities is reflected in the halakhot regarding redeeming family property.  Ancestral land can be bought back at any point in the yovel (jubilee) cycle, and at the yovel year, it is returned immediately and free of charge.  However, when a family sells their dwelling in a city, they have only one year to buy it back, or else lose it forever (Vayikra 25:25-31):


If your brother becomes poor and sells some of his possession, then his close kinsman shall come and redeem that which his brother has sold.  And if a man has no one to redeem it, and he becomes rich and finds sufficient means to redeem it, then let him count the years of the sale thereof and restore the remainder to the man to whom he sold it; and he shall return to his possession.  But if he does not have sufficient means to get it back for himself, then that which he has sold shall remain in the hand of the buyer until the year of jubilee; and in the jubilee it shall go out, and he shall return to his possession. 


And if a man sells a residential home in a walled city, then he may redeem it within the year after it is sold; for a full year, he shall have the right of redemption.  And if it is not redeemed within the space of a full year, then the house that is in the walled city shall be in the buyer's hand in perpetuity, throughout his generations; it shall not go out in the jubilee.  But the houses of the villages, which have no wall around them, shall be reckoned with the fields of the country; they may be redeemed, and they shall go out in the jubilee. 


We may think it strange to link cities with wandering – the towering skyscrapers of our modern metropolises cause us to view the city and its edifices as permanent markers.  However, just as the first punishment ever meted out to humanity is the loss of land, so too, all the experiences of a people are defined through its relationship to the land on which it lives.  Lacking a connection to the land, the city floats artificially, its great numbers and cultural achievements hiding the fact that it is fundamentally disconnected from the earth.  It is no wonder that the Jewish people, for two thousand years of exile, spent most of their sojourn in the cities of the Diaspora, always ready to move at a moment's notice!


Like the cities of refuge specifically, the Torah assigns cities in general dual roles.  They are a form of exile, of a disconnection from the land.  They are, however, also where the kohanim (priests) and Levites are to be found.  The Levites, in their cites, are dedicated "to stand before God, and to serve Him" (Devarim 10:8).  The ghettos served as the repository of Jewish heritage as long as the real bond to Eretz Yisra'el did not exist; the city of exile is also the city of refuge and reconciliation.  May we be privileged to see the rejuvenation of the cities, as prophesized by Yeshayahu about Yerushalayim (1:27): "You will be called 'the City of Justice,' 'the Faithful Metropolis.'"