SALT - Motzaei Shabbat, July 15, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg

This week's SALT shiurim are dedicated in memory of my grandfather 
Rav Yehuda Leib Silverberg z"l, whose yahrzeit is
22 Tamuz, July 16.

            The Torah in Parashat Masei introduces the mitzva of arei miklat – the designation of cities as places of refuge for inadvertent killers, to protect them from vengeful relatives of the victim.  Benei Yisrael were commanded to set aside six such cities, three in Eretz Yisrael proper, and another three on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, which were settled by Reuven, Gad and Menashe.  The Gemara in Masekhet Makkot (9b) tells that the two sets of cities were parallel to one other.  Meaning, the three cities on either side of the Jordan River were aligned from north to south, parallel to the three cities on the opposite side of the river.  In describing this alignment, the Gemara comments, “They were parallel to one another like two rows in a vineyard.”

            We might wonder whether there is perhaps specific significance to the analogy to a vineyard.  Why would the Gemara have found it appropriate to liken the two “rows” of arei miklat to parallel rows of a vineyard?

            Yeshayahu, in one of his more famous prophecies (5:1-7), compares the ideal condition envisioned for Benei Yisrael to a vineyard.  He speaks of God creating Am Yisrael like a person planting a vineyard, investing a great deal of effort to ensure that everything would be perfect, clearing the ground, planting, and even building a press to produce delicious wine from the grapes yielded by the vines.  The prophet then proceeds to bemoan the fact that despite the farmer’s taking every precaution to ensure the vineyard’s success, the grapes were sour.  This was God’s way of lamenting the sinfulness of the nation that He had tended to and cared for with such love and affection, anticipating their growth into a special people that would live in faithful devotion to His values and principles.  His high hopes, so-to-speak, we shattered, as the nation He “planted” with such care ended up turning “sour,” as the people became sinful.

            The image of a vineyard, then, is associated with the ideal condition towards which we ought to strive, our nation’s realizing its mission to serve as a model of Godliness to all mankind.  A vineyard represents the goal that we, God’s chosen nation, must endeavor to achieve, the goal of producing spectacular “wine,” of becoming a nation that would bring joy, peace and righteousness to a difficult world.

            With this in mind, we can perhaps suggest a possible explanation for the Gemara’s comparison between the “rows” of arei miklat and the rows of a vineyard.  Chazal might be alluding to the fact that even under the ideal, pristine conditions represented by a vineyard, we must deal with unfortunate circumstances such as accidental murder.  The ideal condition is not one in which there are no difficult problems, but rather one in which difficult problems are addressed in a responsible, serious and ethical manner.  If we think of the “vineyard,” of the ideal Torah life, as a perfect reality where nothing ever goes wrong, where no challenges ever present themselves, then we run the risk of despairing and giving up on the whole enterprise once we realize that such a reality does not and will not exist.  The “vineyard” that we are to plant, the ideal religious life towards which we are to strive, requires hard work and often presents difficult situations for us to confront using the timeless wisdom, values and principles of the Torah.