The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Matos-Mas'ei , Numbers 30:2-32:42 & 33:1-36:13
Do not corrupt the land!

by Avraham ben Yaakov

Do not corrupt the land which you are in. For it is blood that corrupts the land; and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it except through the blood of the one that shed it.

Numbers 35:33

Conclusion of the Book of Numbers

In many years the two concluding portions of the Book of Numbers, known respectively as Matos and Mas'ei , are both read in the Synagogue on the same Sabbath in order to ensure that the opening portion of Deuteronomy is read on the Sabbath immediately prior to the Fast of 9 Av commemorating the destruction of the Temple.

The whole of Deuteronomy consists of Moses' closing discourses prior to his death. These were all given in the plains of Moab where Israel were encamped at the end of 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, poised to enter the Promised Land under Joshua, who was already marked out as Moses' successor.

All the later sections of the book of Numbers (from chapter 20 v. 14 onwards), including our two present portions, deal with the final period of Israel's sojourn in the Wilderness and their encounters with the various nations that lived around the Promised Land. These included the Edomites to the southeast (Numbers 20:14ff), the Amalekites in the south (Numbers 21:1ff, see Rashi there), the Emorites, from whom Moses conquered territories east of the River Jordan (Numbers 21:21ff), the inhabitants of the region of Bashan to the northeast, whose lands he also conquered (Numbers 21:33ff), and the Moabites and Midianites, who tried to curse and corrupt the people of Israel (Numbers 22:2-25:3).

The first of our two portions, Matos , deals with the war of vengeance that God commanded Moses to wage against the Midianites, and with the settlement of the conquered territories of the Emorites and the Bashan region by the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh.

Our second portion, Mas'ei , begins by recounting all the stations of the Israelites' journey from Egypt through the wilderness to the borders of their ancestral land.

After this God instructed Moses as to how the land was to be divided among the remaining nine and a half tribes, defining the exact boundaries of the Promised Land (34:1-15) and the names of the tribal chiefs who would preside over the land allocations (34:16-27).

The key to civilized living

All-important is the last major section of the book of Numbers, chapter 35, which deals with how the Children of Israel were to live in their land as a "light to the nations".

1. The Levite Cities (Numbers 35:1-8) :
Since the Levites were dedicated to service in the Temple and had no single tribal allotment of their own in the land, they were to be given forty-two cities dispersed among all the other tribes, who were commanded to support them with tithes. This would ensure that even when the rest of the people were preoccupied with their day-to-activities making a livelihood etc. an elite of scholars and teachers would be available everywhere to teach the people the Torah and how to subject their lives to its wisdom.

2. Cities of Refuge for Unwitting Killers (Numbers 35:9-34) :

The Torah contains a complete system for dealing with killers of various kinds, making a clear distinction between unintentional killing and intentional murder.

A human is capable of killing with bare hands, just as animals kill with their "hug" or more often with their teeth or poisonous bite. Just as man is distinguished from all the animals by his use of tools of many different kinds, so too man alone has the power to kill through the use of tools - i.e. weapons, which are far more deadly than teeth, such as the knife, sword or bullet or other means. Even with no intention to kill, fallible humans using often complex technology that harnesses powerful natural forces can often cause fatal accidents, as in the case of car crashes, domestic and industrial accidents and the like.

Such killings are quite different from intentional murder motivated by hatred, as in the case of the first murder in the Bible, when Cain killed his brother Abel because of jealousy (Genesis 4:8).

The Torah so abhors killing of any kind that even the unintentional killer must move to one of the cities of refuge, strictly segregated from the rest of society, in order to live a life of soul-searching and repentance so as to atone for his negligence.

Most abhorrent of all is intentional murder, which is forbidden under the Seven Noahide Laws. The intentional killer does not deserve to live, and must be executed.

"There is nothing to which the Torah is more opposed than bloodshed, as is written: 'Do not corrupt the land. for it is blood that corrupts the land.' (Numbers 35:33)"

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Killing and Protection of Life 1:4

The laws of the penalties for killing and murder are repeated again and again in the Five Books of Moses. The prohibition of murder is sixth of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13). The distinction between unintentional killing and murder is made in Exodus 21:12-14. The death penalty for murder is given in Leviticus 24:17. The cities of refuge, judicial procedure and the penalty for murder are dealt with at length in our present portion of Mas'ei in Numbers 35: 9-34, and again, also at some length, in Deuteronomy 19:1-13.

The Death Penalty

The only killing that is sanctioned in the Torah is in legitimate warfare against sworn enemies who refuse the call to peace (Deuteronomy 20:10) and against terrorists (=Amalek, Deuteronomy 25:19), and judicial killing for specific crimes, especially murder.

The Torah clearly and unequivocally requires the death penalty for the intentional killer. Moreover the Torah teaches that it is precisely the failure to impose the death penalty that corrupts the land: "For it is blood that corrupts the land, and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it except through the blood of the one that shed it" (Numbers 35:33)

Some people are under the mistaken apprehension that Torah law is lenient to the killer on account of the apparent requirement that a murder must have been duly witnessed by two valid witnesses in order for the murderer to be executed (Numbers 35:30). They infer that in most cases, murderers could never be executed for their crimes.

This is wrong, as clearly stated by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) in his authoritative Code of Torah Law:

In the case of all murderers who are not technically liable to the death penalty at the hands of the rabbinical court, if the legitimate government wants to have them executed under state law for the welfare of the world, they are entitled to do so. Likewise if the rabbinical court saw fit to execute them as an emergency measure if the circumstances justify this, they are entitled to do as they see fit.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Killing and Protection of Life 2:4

The compassion of the wicked is cruel" (Proverbs 12:10)

45 years ago as a boy of 15, I sat in the visitors' gallery of the British House of Commons during the debate on the suspension of capital punishment for murder, which was implemented in 1965, followed by the complete abolition of capital punishment in 1969.

As an impressionable teenager, it was easy to be swayed by the eloquent arguments of the abolitionists in the name of enlightened compassion. Today, nearly half a century later, the consequences of their misplaced compassion may be seen in the culture of guns, knives and violence that has taken hold of Britain, as in so many other "enlightened" and "advanced" countries. Fifty years ago, murders and violent attacks were very rare and single cases occupied the attention of the media for weeks. Today the stabbings and shootings follow one another so fast that they are quickly overtaken by each ensuing outrage.

There is no deterrence against murder when the killer knows that he will never be in fear of losing his own life. At worst, if caught and convicted, he will live out his days enjoying the free hospitality of a taxpayer-financed prison that provides him with a variety of enjoyable physical recreation and other facilities, TV and entertainment, the ability to study, etc. with no worries about ever being unemployed or going hungry. In many cases convicted killers have excellent prospects of having their sentences remitted to little more than a few years.

This is one of the main reasons for the endless series of shootings, knifings and violent attacks that are reported every single day, which are also encouraged by the incessant diet of killing and violence provided by TV, films and fiction.

Many people who consider themselves highly enlightened imagine that all the world already recognizes how evil it is to kill, and they argue that this being so, the death penalty for killers must also be immoral. Even where they accept that criminal murderers should at least be locked up for their crimes, their "liberalism" makes them take a lenient view of killings perpetrated by those they view as "freedom fighters" seeking to overturn corrupt, tyrannical regimes. Thus "enlightened" and "compassionate" liberals throughout the world tend to turn a blind eye to or even justify killings and other forms of violence perpetrated by those who in their political lexicon are on the side of "good", while vilifying any kind of violence by those they see as being on the side of "evil".

Accordingly, worldwide censure of Israel for using "disproportionate violence" in handling the many security risks to which they are exposed goes hand in hand with a lenient and even favorable view of actual fomenters of violence and adulators of bloodshed all over the world.

Scarcely a day goes by without reports of mass-casualty terrorist attacks by "Moslems" against "Moslems", eliciting little more than a sigh. On the very day I am writing these words, over 50 have been killed in the latest attacks in Baghdad, Iraq, including 32 targeted in a suicide bombing at a revered Shiite religious shrine. On the same day the media are reporting that the Al Qaeda terror network has launched an English language Internet site including articles like "Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mother".

The British-Pakistan author and historian Tariq Ali has characterized the state religion of Saudi Arabia - birthplace of Al Qaeda - as being "not an everyday version of Sunni or Shia Islam but a peculiarly virulent, ultra-puritanical strain known as Wahhabism. an artificially manufactured denomination of Islam which authorizes the killing of Shiite Muslims as a means of entering heaven". If it is permissible to kill fellow Muslims, how much more is the killing of non-Muslims esteemed. But the multi-million dollar oil, defense and other interests shared by Saudi Arabia with the "enlightened" countries of America, Britain and Europe etc. stand in the way of any meaningful protests by the latter.

The killers and the liberals

The ideology of terror legitimizes random killings of innocent men, women and children without trial in the name of some religious-political "war against evil".

This is completely contrary to the teaching of the Torah, which demands due judicial procedure in all cases, as we see in the section on killing in our portion of Mas'ei . Proper judicial procedure including thorough investigations are required even in the case of a city that has reverted to Idolatry (Deut. 13:13-19). No group of terrorists or anyone else is ever allowed to take the law into their own hands because of what they imagine to be morally justified.

But today the terrorists and their state backers and supporters are in the ascendant. They are delighted that the "compassionate liberals" of the "enlightened countries" have gone soft on killing, since this simply advances their agenda.

The world is in danger of descending ever-deeper into a horrendous chasm of violence, bloodshed and barbarity.

The only hope for civilization is to return to the wisdom of the Torah:

No expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it except through the blood of the one that shed it.

Numbers 35:33




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