How should a book like the Torah end? What uplifting message would you append? On the assumption that Bamidbar is the actual end of the Torah, since Devarim is mostly Moshe’s review of the preceding three books, what should we expect to find in the final chapters?
What we do find, first, is a recounting of the 42 stations the Israelites visited on their circuitous tour of the desert for 40 years. Then we read the boundaries of the country and the command to remove the seven nation-tribes that live here.
We are told to put aside 42 cities for the Levites, who do not inherit land, and then we are treated to a review of the law of the cities of refuge, those cities to which people who kill others by accident can flee to avoid being avenged by a family member of the deceased.
The final chapter returns to the daughters of Zelofchad. The tribe of Menashe questions God’s decision to allow daughters to inherit their father’s estate. Their valid argument is that the woman’s estate becomes part of the husband’s holding, so when a daughter inherits and marries, her tribe loses territory. The solution offered is that the daughters are allowed to inherit and marry, with one new proviso: the groom has to be from the same tribe.
Despite the logic of some of these topics, it sometimes seems like a random list, as if God simply finished the commandments and just stopped. But we are smarter than that. We know that if a law or a paragraph appears in a particularly sensitive place, there is or should be a reason. So let us examine the messages we are given and whether they have any relevance today.
After a long journey we sum up where we have been, both to remember and to learn from what happened in each place. Check. You’re going into a country so you have to know what the boundaries are. Check. As for the commandment to remove the seven nation-tribes living in the country, it is cruel, but considering how susceptible the Israelites are to any outside influences (remember the Midianite women after Bilaam!), cleansing the country of them is a sound piece of advice. Check.
The commandment to set aside cities for the Levites is also not unexpected. After all, throughout the Torah we are reminded to care for the Levites, the widows and the orphans. And the message about the cities of refuge is connected to the Levites, as the refuge cities are also Levite cities. Check.
But why end with cities of refuge? They are important, but why make it the next to last commandment in the four books? According to Rabbi Avraham Fischer, cities of refuge are an essential message to transmit as the Israelites’ prepare to enter the land.
If we were to characterize the 40 years the Israelites spent from their exodus from Egypt until now, we could say that they are marked by miracles, trouble adhering to God’s commandments, and war, death, pillage and brutality in general. In their last year in the desert the Israelites took on two large nations and defeated them. In addition, the numerous clashes between God’s will and the people’s inability to follow the rules, resulted in plagues, death and destruction in the camp.
They also understand that the people in Canaan will not give up their lands willingly. Who would? That means more war, bloodshed, and brutality in the coming years.
But one of the main prohibitions of the Torah, even for non-Jews, is killing. A person who kills – must be killed so that the earth can be purified of the spilt blood. From Cain and Abel this has been the rule.
People become inured to almost anything. We are shocked the first time an atrocity is committed, less so the second time, and by the fifth time we say, So what’s new? Just look at the evening news.
This chapter about the cities of refuge comes to remind us that lives are important. That there’s a difference between killing in war and killing somebody because he took your parking spot. Similarly, not all killing is the same. Shooting up a school, kids and teachers, because you’re angry at the principal, is different from a guy on a ladder whose hammer drops and lands on someone’s head and kills him. Intentions count.
Today we have courts to adjudicate between murder and manslaughter. In those days, when justice was a family issue, not a national issue, a special law was needed to create this differentiation and save innocent people.
In today’s world, violence is a fact of life. It’s in the movies, on TV. It’s the basis of the news! It’s on the roads and in any area with people. We and our children can lose our bearings. The wear and tear eats away at our ability to distinguish between fighting for our lives and using the weapons so readily available and so graphically portrayed in the media and in the news to vent our anger against daily annoyances.
Remember the difference and that there’s nothing as important as life – that’s one of the messages of the cities of refuge, and it’s as important now as it was then. It also reminds us that every person was created in the image of God, and the destruction of one person is the destruction of part of the deity and of the world.
Perhaps someday we will have the privilege of living in a world or country of peace. Until then, reminders like cities of refuge are in order.