Matot – Masei – 5778

By: Larry Tobin

The purpose of this D’var will be to discuss some of the more intriguing aspects of Matot and Masei. Both Parshas are not only interesting, but also extremely informative regarding the Torah way of handling some very sensitive issues. I will point out their significance to the present day. Additionally, I will try to dispel some common misconceptions.

In Matot , the  division of land among the twelve tribes is undertaken. The tribes of Reuven and Gad had achieved great wealth before entering Israel by raising cattle. The land east of the Jordan River was ideal for cattle. This territory had been acquired by defeating the Amorites (King Sichon) and the Kingdom of Bashan (King Og). Moses wanted the combined armies of the twelve tribes to proceed to war against the Midianites. Reuven and Gad, however, stated that they preferred to remain behind and continue raising cattle. They noted that they had no interest in acquiring additional land.  They were fully satisfied with the land they currently occupied. Moses severely rebuked them. How could they idly stay back while the other tribes went to war? A compromise was finally reached. The armies of Reuven and Gad would join the armies of the other ten tribes to proceed to war against Midian. Their families, however, would remain behind in fortified cities and continue to possess the land outside of Israel. After defeat of the Midianites, a final distribution of land would be made among the twelve tribes which would constitute their inheritance of land from G-d. Reuven and Gad would retain their current holdings.


The twelve tribes are the direct descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob. Although this is partially correct, it is technically inaccurate.  There are no tribes of Joseph and Levi. The other ten tribes are, indeed, directly descended from the sons of Jacob. Rather than being a tribe of Joseph, the two half-tribes of Menashe and Ephraim were formed. They were the two sons of Joseph. Although called half tribes, they were full tribes in all regards. Levites assisted the Kohanim. They inherited no land. Instead each of the twelve tribes were required to set aside living places for the Levites and support them. The Kohanim, please note, were the descendants of the first High Priest, Aaron. A total of forty-eight cities were established where the Levites would live and perform their duties. Three tribes: Reuven, Gad and the half-tribe of Menashe, inherited land east of the Jordan River. The remaining nine tribes: Judah, Shimon, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Naftali and the half-tribe of Ephraim, inherited land in Israel west of the Jordan River.

In Masei, major topics include murder, cities of refuge and inheritance rights of women. The Torah approach of criminal justice has become the framework for the American system of law. Murder, please note, is different than killing. One, for example, who kills an enemy while serving in the military is generally not considered a murderer. Murder was Biblically punishable by death. If a person was adjudicated to be innocent, no action would be taken. If negligence on the part of the perpetrator led to death of another, the killer would be allowed to flee to a city of refuge. If killing was the result of gross negligence, i.e., severe carelessness, punishments other than the death penalty would be utilized and cities of refuge would not be an option. An example of this would be accidentally killing someone during the commission of a crime. Unlike the American Judicial approach, there was no Felony Murder Doctrine, i.e., one is deemed guilty of murder if an accidental killing occurs during the commission of a felony. To be found Biblically guilty of murder, there had to be intent. The element of mens rea (evil mind) is required in the U.S. The Torah required that two reliable witnesses had to corroborate that the murder did take place. False witness testimony could lead to the witness getting the penalty that would have been imposed on the accused. Stronger measures were taken, therefore, under Torah law than under American Law to protect the innocent or accidental killer. Circumstantial evidence was not allowed. As today, exceptions were carved out for the mentally ill and others.


The controversial Sanctuary City concept of today is a direct offshoot of the Biblical Cities of Refuge. Cities of Refuge were created primarily for one purpose. They afforded a safe haven for negligent killers who otherwise could face death by the hands of the family of the deceased. These killers, at the very least, lacked the required intent to be deemed murderers. Yet, they had killed due to their own negligence. The cities of refuge, therefore, served as places of atonement.  Three cities of refuge were set up on each side of the Jordan River. On the west side were the cities of Kedesh, Shechem and Hebron. On the east were the cities of Golan, Ramoth and Bosor. The fleeing killers had to make their way to a city of refuge and remain there until the High Priest of the city died. The death of the High Priest was deemed a repentance for the sins of the killers. They were then free to leave. Anyone who harmed them could be subject to punishment up to and including death.


Some people criticize Torah Law as being overly harsh. The verse “an eye for an eye” is often cited as proof for this conclusion. The death penalty prescribed for murder in Masei is also cited as proof that the Torah presented a blood thirsty system of justice. Although the eye for eye notion does not appear in today’s Parshaot, when coupled with the death penalty it does superficially suggest an extremely harsh Biblical approach. You poke out my eye. Then I get to poke out your eye? Not really. The eye for eye approach was a precursor to the American concept of damages. If one pokes out the eye of another, then compensation must be paid for the loss of the eye and the impact it will have on the victim. The death penalty was prescribed only for intentional murder corroborated by two witnesses. It was a rarely used punishment. Intent was difficult to prove. How often do you have a murder witnessed by two people? Whether true or not, the Talmud refers to one Sanhedrin which carried out the death penalty once in seven years as “The Bloody Sanhedrin”. Torah Law may be firm. Certainly, it is not harsh.

A last subject is certainly worthy of mention. Up to the time of the Exodus, only men could inherit. Along came the interesting case of the daughters of Tzelafchad discussed in Parsha Masei. Tzelafchad died sonless. He did, however, have five daughters. Who inherits? As it turns out, this was a very prominent family. Tzelafchad was the son of Menashe. Menashe was the son of Joseph. In other words, the daughters were the granddaughters of Menashe and the great granddaughters of Joseph. The daughters’ names, in case you are ever involved in a game of Bible Trivia, were Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. They argued that since there were no sons to inherit, it was their right to inherit. This would be the only way their family could retain its legally acquired property interests. The Tribe of Menashe argued, with the other Tribes agreeing, that by giving the land to the daughters the Tribe of Menashe was effectively being robbed of its G-d given land should any of the daughters marry into different tribes. The matter was resolved by allowing the daughters to inherit with the proviso that if any daughter married outside the Tribe of Menashe, the land would revert back to the Tribe. None of the daughters married outside Menashe. This became a landmark decision in Jewish Law. The process of equal rights for women not only in the religious sector, but also in all other sectors of life continues.

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