Archive for Masei

Matot-Masei: Unselfish Prayers

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot-Masei

The double portion of Matot and Masei concludes the book of Bamidbar/Numbers. Laws are given for annulment of vows, spoils of war, and division of lands. The history of the decades in the wilderness is reviewed and the portions conclude with laws for cities of refuge and more on the division of the land.

It’s hot in Poughkeepsie!

Probably not as hot as it was those 40 years in the desert, though, so who am I to complain? This week we finish the book of Bamidbar – literally, “in the wilderness”- with laws that only apply once the people arrive in the land of Israel. Among those laws are the cities of refuge, to which someone who accidentally killed another might flee, safe from avenging family members of the victim. The one who committed manslaughter was safe as long as he was in the city of refuge; if he went out of the city, and was met by a blood-avenger. . . .well, let’s just say he should have stayed home and caught up on reruns.

However, the term of the manslayer’s confinement is variable: in a seemingly odd detail, the Torah tells us that the accidental killer must stay in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest. (Cf. Bamidbar 35:25.) It makes sense that remaining in the city of refuge is not a permanent sentence- after all, it was an accident, and presumably some period away from home gives the victim’s family time to cool off and forgive. (As an aside: if one could forgo vengeance in the case of manslaughter, as the Torah seems to hope, isn’t it rather embarrassing to realize all the lesser things we struggle to forgive?)

Yet commentators have no consensus regarding the seeming non sequitur of the death of the High Priest- what does he have to do with a mishap far from the capital ? Our friend Rashi brings two interpretations from earlier texts: first, the High Priest and the killer are sort of cosmic opposites. The HP blesses the people with life, but the killer causes death, and is thus unworthy of standing before the current High Priest and is only free when the next one takes office, presumably “resetting” the cycle of guilt and innocence.

Rashi’s second interpretation is more germane to our year 5770 theme of prayer and spirituality: the life of the HP and the freedom of the accidental killer are connected because the priest should have prayed that such a terrible thing should not have happened in his lifetime. Notice, please, that in the first interpretation, the killer was confined because he was unworthy of being in the presence of that particular High Priest; in the second, it’s the High Priest whose death atones in some way for a problem for which he bore some responsibility.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think that the priest, way off in Jerusalem, is responsible for a bar fight in Beersheva, regardless of the intensity of his prayer. Rather, I think we can take from this midrash that the High Priest should have included the safety of all the citizens in his prayers; his failure to pray for the well-being of the people reflected a shortcoming in his spiritual leadership. Prayer, if it is genuine, is unselfish and broadens our vision; when we pray for others, we take into our hearts their pain and needs, and displace the incessant self-centeredness that gets in the way of compassion.

Accidents happen, and are not typically prevented by good davenning. What is prevented by prayer is indifference to suffering. Prayer isn’t about getting what you want in the moment; it’s about becoming more deeply aware of our connectedness to others- because we area all, in the end, part of One-  so that their welfare is our own. So perhaps the death of the High Priest was an atonement for indifference, or perhaps it was imagined as such an occasion for mourning in Israelite society that people had no desire to see more pain and loss. In either case, for us, the question remains: how shall we make our prayers other-directed, inclusive, compassionate, and unselfish? Of course- when we change our prayers, we change ourselves.

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Matot-Masei: Broken Cisterns, Living Waters

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot/Masei

This week’s haftarah is a continuation, more or less, of last week’s;
we’re in the second of the “Three Weeks” before Tisha B’Av, the
mournful commemoration day, and the prophetic texts continue their
“rebuke” of the people. (See last week’s commentary, linked below, for
more context.)

This week, I just want to look at one beautiful verse from the haftarah:

“For My people have done a twofold wrong:
They have forsaken Me, the Fount of living waters,
And hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns,
Which cannot even hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:13)

The contrast is stark: a “broken cistern” is compared to the “Fount”
(or spring) of “mayim hayyim,” or “living water.”

The Hebrew for “broken cisterns” is a bit ambiguous; Hirsch would
translate it as something like “empty pits,” but in either case the
contrast is clear: the Israelites who have strayed from the covenant
are like somebody who has only an empty pit where their water should
be, whereas had they stayed true to their God, they would be like
people who had a constant spring of living water, which in the most
basic sense means fresh or drinkable water, as opposed to brackish or
muddy water. However, pay close attention to the doubling of language:
“hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns,” implies not just that the
people lack spiritual refreshment, but that their work has been flawed
from the start- they made “broken cisterns,” that is, wasted time and
energy on a misleading path.

This, too me, is a resonant image, because it suggests that any
spiritual or moral path or system that is not a “fountain of living
waters”- that is, a constant source of the deepest renewal- is a
“broken cistern,” or a waste of time. A cistern that leaks is no good
to us, and a spiritual path that doesn’t help us grow is a leak in our
lives! Too often, we chase after a feel-good spirituality which is
like candy: it’s great in the moment, but has no lasting effect. A
real “makor,” or wellspring, is something that lasts a lifetime,
calling us back and never running out of the capacity to renew and
inspire. A deep practice of study, prayer and conscious compassion is
just such a spiritual wellspring, and lucky for us, you can find such
a practice wherever an authentic Judaism is taught with love and
brought into open hearts.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Masei: Slowing Our Anger

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Masei

This week’s portion, Masei, describes the places that the Israelites
camped on their way to the Land, and concludes with the laws of the
“cities of refuge,” which were to be established once they actually
settled there. These cities were places where people who had committed
accidental manslaughter could flee and be safe from blood avengers
from the victim’s family. However, the ancient rabbis learn an
important detail from a verse which at first seems to merely recap the
main ideas:

“The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the
manslayer may not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly.”
(Bamidbar/ Numbers 35:12)

According to Sefer HaHinnuch, a textbook of the commandments, this
verse teaches us that no person could be put to death unless they had
the benefit of a proper trial. Even if a crowd of people had seen the
crime, nobody was to receive punishment unless all exonerating
circumstances and laws had been considered by wise and dispassionate

On a social level, this understanding fits well with the Torah’s
overall ideas of justice, which require deliberation and fairness to
enact. Yet on a more personal level, we could understand this mitzvah-
not to punish without trial- as teaching us to quiet our anger and
seek to understand all sides in a conflict. Anger is easy and leads to
thoughts (or actions) of vengeance, but revenge always presumes that
the avenger is totally right- whereas in most situations of conflict,
a bit of humility leads to the desire to understand the situation from
all perspectives.

That is, we ought not punish someone before the “trial,” or the
conversation in which we hope to see the best in others, if at all
possible, and strive for the as much reconciliation as we can. This is
not easy, but it does bring more understanding into the world, which,
with grace, brings about forgiving where otherwise there might be anger.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Matot-Masei: The Journey Is Not Taken Alone

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot/Masei

While I’m on vacation it
seems appropriate to bring to your attention that the second of this
week’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Masei, is all about traveling and
journeys. Moshe recounts for the people all the places they made their
camp, from the days of Egypt to the borders of the Land of Israel. For
forty-nine verses of Bamidbar/Numbers 33, all Moshe does is recount
where they’ve been before, which leaves our friend Rashi with an
implied question: why do we need to read the “Triptik” (ah, the
pre-Mapquest days. . . ) again, since it’s all been recorded in
earlier chapters of the Torah?

Rashi gives two answers, the first of which is that Moshe recalled the
journeys in so that the people (including later generations,
presumably) would remember God’s kindness to the Israelites in
providing resting places along the long way towards the Holy Land.
Rashi does what I call “rabbi math” (i.e., don’t try this on your
1040) in order to show that the middle 38 years of the journey only
contained about half the number of total re-locations- i.e., most of
the moving from place to place was in the first and last years of the
40, so that there really wasn’t that much “journeying” as such over
the 40 years at all.

Rashi’s second explanation comes from an earlier sage, R. Tanchuma,
who offers a parable:

“It is like a king whose son became sick, so he took him to a far away
place to have him healed. On the way back, the father began citing all
the stages of their journey, saying to him, ‘This is where we sat,
here we were cold, here you had a headache, etc.’ ” (Rashi on
Bamidbar/Numbers 33:1)

R. Tanchuma’s parable begs two questions: first, who do the characters
of the story represent in terms of the Torah narrative, and second,
why is it important for the son to know what happened along the way to
the place where he was healed? Isn’t it enough to know that everything
turned out OK in the end?

In many religious parables and allegories, the character of
the “King” represents God, and if that’s what R. Tanchuma meant, then
we have to understand that Moshe was following God’s instructions to
review all the stages of the journey. In that case, then it seems that
Rashi’s first answer and his second answer are the same: the review of
the stages of the journey is a praise of God’s kindness, both in
providing for resting places along the way and in staying with the
people in their times of trouble at various points.

However, perhaps another possibility is that the “King” in R.
Tanchuma’s parable is not God, but Moshe, and if so, that creates the
problem of understanding how Moshe brought the people- the “son”-
“back” home, since Moshe never came from the land of Israel. I have no
particular answer to that problem, but on the other hand, this reading
makes R. Tanchuma’s parable more poignant and human, casting the
relationship between Moshe and the people as one of parent and child.
Moshe comes across as more of a care-giver than a law-giver, more a
shepherd than a judge .Perhaps in recalling the stages of the journey,
he is really talking about his long relationship with the people,
saying: “here were all the places I took care of you as your leader
and friend.”

Now, perhaps it’s understandable that Moshe would like a little bit of
gratitude from the people, given that he knows that his days are soon
drawing to an end, but there is also something touching about the idea
that this long-serving leader would ask the people to remember all
they’ve been through together. In this reading, it feels to me that
these verses are about Moshe’s love and kindness for the people- which
perhaps is what he’d like them to remember about him, rather than the
times he was a strict judge and stern lawgiver.

Returning to Rashi, perhaps we can say that he offers two different
reasons for recounting each stage of the journey because the people
had multiple thanks to give, both to God and to Moshe. If so, then the
long passage at the beginning of chapter 33 is more than a log-book of
campsites, but is paradigmatic of all human journeys: we take them
with God, and we take them with our friends and loved ones. To God we
give thanks for the blessings and goodness along the way, and if we
are blessed enough to have companions and family who strengthen us, we
give thanks for the amazing gift that human hearts can be loyal and
loving. Remembering the stages of the journey, in this light, isn’t
about nostalgia, it’s about recognizing to Whom thanks are due, both
in the Heavens above and right here on earth.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Mattot-Maasei: The Miracle is the Journey

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot/Masei

Our thoughts and prayers are for peace this week- the world is crying
out for peace, but there is still so much needless war. . . . . .

Our Torah portion this week is Mattot-Masei, a double portion, which
concludes the book of Bamidbar/ Numbers. Among the stories and laws of
the double parsha are a recounting of all the places where the
Israelites camped from the time they left Egypt until arriving on the
far side of the Jordan river.

“These are the journeys of the Israelites who left the land of Egypt
in their legions, under the charge of Moshe and Aharon. Moshe
recorded their starting points for their journeys according to the
word of the Lord, and these were their journeys with their starting
points. . . . . ” (Numbers/Bamidbar 33:1-2)

What follows is a large chunk of text with the names of all those
places, which raises a question among commentators: so, nu, what is
this, a travelogue, that we need all the names of every campsite?
Kidding aside, it’s a serious question about the nature of sacred
text: the ancient and medieval rabbis took it as self-evident that the
Torah teaches theological truth, not merely historical data. So if the
Torah is telling us “first they camped here, then there, then over
there. . . . “, it must have a theological purpose in doing so.

One perspective comes from Maimonides (A.K.A. Rambam), the philosopher
who is quoted in the Torah commentary of the later scholar
Nachmanides, (A.K.A. Ramban.) Rambam explains that the Torah goes into
great length to tell us every place the Israelites camped because it’s
part of the larger narrative of God’s greatness and mercy. In fact,
even with all the miracles which the Torah describes, from the
splitting of the Sea to the giving of the Torah and all the rest, the
most amazing miracle of all is that the Israelite nation survived on
its 40 year journey, with the manna falling every day and the people
moving along from one point to the next for an entire generation.
Thus, for Rambam, the campsites are named because knowing the details
of the journey helps us be grateful to God for the entire miraculous
history of our people, which is more amazing than any particular piece
of it.

Of course, what’s true for a people is also true for a person: with
all the ups and downs and detours and travails and triumphs and
challenges and successes and failures and joys and sorrows that a life
can bring, the journey from one stage to another may be the greatest
gift of all. Just the fact that we don’t have to get stuck at one
“campsite” over a life’s journey is pretty amazing- we are always
capable of greater growth and getting closer to the unfolding of our
spiritual potential. Reflecting on the journey can bring us to
amazement and gratitude- precisely the emotions that miracles evoke,
if only we open our hearts to feel them.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- before you go onto further Torah study in the links below, take a
moment to read some of the letters from Masorti (Conservative) rabbis
in Israel, doing amazing work under great stress in the current
situation. To help the Masorti movement bring comfort, healing and
refuge to the people of Israel, please consider donating, through the
link at the top of the page:

Now, as usual, you can find a summary of the double portion and
further commentary in the first link, and the relevant Torah texts in
the second:

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Massei: Refuge from Revenge

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Massei

Greetings from not-too-scalding Swampscott; it seems that I had
the good fortune to miss the worst of the heat wave on the East
Coast. I’m back on the North Shore for a few more weeks, during
which it’s my privilege to provide some Torah for midsummer

The portion Massei is the final parsha of the book of Bamidbar/
Numbers; it is usually read with the preceding portion, but not
this year. It begins with a long list of all the places the Israelites
camped during their 40 year journey, and then describes the
borders of the Land of Israel, which the Israelites will soon
inhabit. The Israelites must designate “cities of refuge” for those
who cause accidental death, and the parsha concludes with a
revisiting of inheritance laws.

In chapter 35, there is an extensive explanation of the “cities of
refuge”, which begins:

“The Lord spoke to Moses saying: ‘Speak to the children of Israel
and say to them: When you cross the Jordan to the land of
Canaan, you shall designate cities for yourselves; they shall be
cities of refuge for you, and a person who unintentionally killed
shall flee there.’ ” (Bamidbar/Numbers 35:9-11)

The rest of the chapter describes the precise conditions under
which someone might end up in one of the cities of refuge, but
the basic idea is that if somebody killed a person by accident
(what we call manslaughter), they should be allowed to live in a
safe city, and may not be sought out for revenge by the victim’s
family. On the other hand, it was also forbidden to allow a real
murderer to escape; the Torah prescribes capital punishment for
premeditated murder, though the later rabbinic tradition strongly
circumscribed the conditions under which it could be enacted.

The ethical ideal of the cities of refuge is as relevant today as it
was in Biblical times: punishment must be proportional, and any
judgment requires careful discrimination between differing sets
of circumstances. Intentions matter; human beings make
mistakes, and the one who makes a tragic error is not to be held
liable in the same way as one who harms out of hate or evil.

Yet this idea- that we must carefully consider a person’s
intentions and all the mitigating circumstances when judging an
action- is not just a judicial principle; it is essential to spiritual
growth. Think for a minute about the situation that the Torah
proposes: someone is accidentally killed, and the responsibility
of the community is to protect the killer from those who would
quite naturally seek revenge or blood-redemption. Passions
must be cooled with reflection and thoughtful investigation.

In other words, precisely at a moment of tremendous stress for
the entire community, when emotions are running high and the
temptation is great to take action against the one who caused
harm- that is when the Torah tells us to slow down, think clearly,
investigate the circumstances, step back from the brink, and not
allow tragedy to be compounded.

Friends, what is true for the accidental killer is even more true for
those people we interact with every day: they deserve not to be
the victims of harsh judgments and hasty reactions when
emotions are running high. People hurt each other; they make
mistakes; they act carelessly; they cause pain and distress- but
they are usually not seeking to intentionally harm (and if they are,
it’s often because of their own pain and struggle).

The Torah asks us to step back from the ordinary emotions of
hurt and revenge and seek clarity about what is fair and right;
sometimes the path towards right relationship must be cleared
by taking time to just think things out. Blood for blood (or insult
for insult, or sarcasm for sarcasm, or emotional manipulation for
emotional manipulation) may be the way of strictest justice, but it
is not the way of God, Who demands that we rise above our
quickest and basest instincts.

This is not to say that actions don’t have consequences; after all,
the accidental killer was still sent away from his home town to
the City of Refuge, where he might have to spend many years.
Yet the Torah’s greater principle is clear: rather than give in to
destructive impulses for revenge and retribution, we must see
the humanity even in those who cause harm- a category which
includes all of us at one time or another. Humans are terribly
imperfect, but we may love each other nonetheless.

shabbat shalom,


You may read the full text and find additional commentaries on
Massei here:

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Matot/Masei 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot/Masei

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13)


Two parshiyot are read together this week. Matot begins with laws pertaining to vows and oaths, and then has a long report on Israel’s terrible battle with the nation Midian and its aftermath. After the problems pertaining to the war are finished, two tribes, Reuven and Gad, ask to be apportioned some land on the east side of the Jordan River; this annoys Moshe, but he agrees as long as they stay part of the united army.

In the final parsha of the book of Numbers, Masei (ch. 33 till the end), Israel stands just outside the Land, ready to start the settlement. First, all their travels and detours are reviewed; then laws pertaining to the division, settlement, and inheritance of the Land are given. The boundaries of the Land of Israel are described, where special cities of refuge for accidental manslayers are to be set up. Finally, the book of Numbers ends with a review of prohibitions against intermarriage and an affirmation of the claim of the daughters of Zelophechad. (See parshat Pinchas.)


“These are the journeys of the Israelites, by which they came out from the land of Egypt by their armies, under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. . . ” (Numbers 33:1)


All the different places where the Israelites camped on their 40 year trek through the wilderness are recalled and reviewed. However, trying to match up every place mentioned in this parsha with narratives in Exodus and earlier in Numbers would demonstrate some discrepancies. Biblical historians might attribute this to different traditions in the Torah itself, while classical commentators would cite midrash to reconcile different names and chronologies.


Readers of this column know that one of my favorite ways to interpret the Torah is through the lens of psychological insight. I often find in the stories of the Torah (and their commentaries) deep insight into the inner motivations and challenges of the individual Jewish soul. This week we have a wonderful example of how Torah commentary in previous periods has been addressed to the individual soul within a national community.

Looking at this long list of place names in the beginning of Parshat Masei, the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of Hassidism itself, saw not a travelogue, but a symbolic description of the individual on a life-long spiritual journey:

    “These are the journeys of the Israelites. . . ” All of the travels added up to 42, and these are also [the journeys] of every individual from the day of her birth until she returns to Eternity. Understand this: that the day of birth is like the leaving of Egypt, as is known, and after that one goes from journey to journey until you reach the place of supreme life, as we have mentioned concerning the verse: “according to the word of God you will camp and according to the word of God you will travel.” ( cf. Numbers 9:15-23) This is like going from a restricted state [katnut] to a state of expanded consciousness [gadlut].

The key teaching in this commentary is in the last sentence, which involves two concepts from the corpus of inner-oriented Judaism. Katnut comes from the Hebrew root which means “small,” and refers to “constriction, a state of passivity and lack of inspiration, in which ultimate fulfillment exists only as potential, not in actuality.” Gadlut comes from the root meaning “large,” or “big”, and refers to the opposite state of being: “fulfillment. . arousal, inspiration.” (These definitions come from R. Norman Lamm’s invaluable study The Religious Thought of Hasidism.)

In this teaching from the Ba’al Shem Tov (also called the Besht, for short), those periods when the Israelites where stuck in one place- “encamped”- where like those periods in a person’s life when they are stuck emotional, uninspired, feeling uncreative and constricted. This is balanced by those times when a person is overflowing, feeling large, inspired, alive, spiritually vital- that state of being is compared to the Israelites travelling towards the Promised land, led on by the Divine Presence.

To me, this is a realistic view of the religious life: it’s not all sweetness and joy, nor is it endless, dour self-scrutiny. A religious life spent in sincere struggle to achieve holy purposes in this world will be a series of ups and downs, of inspiration and setback, periods of growth and periods of being stuck. There is katnut, and there is gadlut; the first brings humility, and the second can bring exhaltation. Both are necessary stops along the way, along the journey from birth to Eternity.

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