Parsha Perspectives


והקריתם לכם ערים ערי מקלט תהיינה לכם ונס שמה רצח מכה נפש בשגגה

“And you shall designate cities for yourselves, cities of refuge, they shall be for you. And there shall flee a murderer who unintentionally kills a person.” (Bamidbar 35:11)

A person who committed unintentional murder was exiled to one of the Cities of Refuge until the death of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). Venturing out of the city meant that the victim’s relatives could take vengeance on the murderer.

The Talmud (Makot 10a) states, “If a student is exiled [to a City of Refuge], his teacher must follow him to exile, as it is stated, ‘Then he shall flee to one of these cities and he shall live’” (Devarim 4:42).  This statement is classically understood to mean that the Torah is concerned not just with the physical survival of the unintentional murderer, but also with his spiritual survival.  Rabbi Yaakov Neiman, author of Darkei Mussar (Pathways of Ethics), asks the following question: To be sure, a life devoid of Torah is devoid of greater meaning. But why must a teacher be exiled along with his student? Why not simply have this individual study by himself during his period of exile?  Furthermore, as explained above, the Cities of Refuge were home to the Levites.  Historically, the Levites were financially supported by the rest of the Jewish people, while they used their time to study and teach Torah.  Why was it not sufficient for the unintentional murderer to find a new teacher from among his scholarly neighbors?  The answer can be understood from the actions of one of the towering luminaries of the wartime generation.  In the late 1930s Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, dean of the yeshivah in Baranovich, Lithuania, was on a fundraising mission in the United States.  When the war broke out, Rabbi Wasserman insisted on returning to his students despite the increasingly perilous situation.  One can assume there were other prominent rabbis capable of leading the yeshivah through this difficult period.  Why did he think it necessary to personally rejoin his students? Rabbi Neiman explains that the meaning behind the Talmud’s statement is that every student must maintain a relationship with a mentor who knows his particular strengths and weaknesses, who is sensitive to his unique life experiences.  This is what enables a teacher to give proper guidance regarding his student’s spiritual growth.  It is not something that can be downloaded, outsourced, or developed in a short period of time. Accordingly, when the verse states that the unintentional murderer must live in exile, the rabbis understood that his teacher must accompany him.  This was why Rabbi Wasserman insisted on rejoining his students, even as the Holocaust closed in on them.  Throughout our lives, each of us will find times when we are the mentor and times when we are the disciple.   As students, we will gain immeasurably by maintaining a connection to a teacher who can guide us through our lives. As mentors, we must understand that our students, disciples, and children need us to maintain a consistent presence in their lives.  Whichever side of the teacher-student relationship we are on at any given time, we must understand that real growth and guidance are not something that can be achieved on a “part-time” basis.  We must be in it for the long haul.

Return to the top

Table Talk

For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table

Q: The Gemora (Makkot 10b) rules that signs must be placed along the roads indicating which path accidental murderers should take in order to arrive at the Cities of Refuge. Why don’t we find a similar law requiring that signs be posted pointing the way to Jerusalem for those on their way to fulfill the mitzvah of ascending to the Beit HaMikdash on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot?

A: The Chofetz Chaim answers that the person on his way to the City of Refuge, even if not an intentional murderer, is still not a moral role model to whom we wish people to be exposed, and G-d wouldn’t have caused this to happen to a completely righteous person. We therefore provide signs for him so that he won’t have to stop and obtain directions from innocent people.  On the other hand, the Medrash relates (Yalkut Shimoni Shmuel 1:1 77) that each year Elkanah and his family would ascend to the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in Shiloh and share his plans with those he encountered, thus encouraging them to join him in the mitzvah. Each time he would take a different path so as to enable all Jews to participate in the mitzvah. There were no signs pointing the way to Jerusalem; therefore, a person ascending there would be forced to ask the locals for directions, thus enabling others to become exposed to the righteous and join in the performance of mitzvot. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)


Q: Although the Torah seems to require (Bamidbar 36:6) the daughters of Tzelofchad to marry men from their father’s tribe (Menashe), the Talmud (Bava Basra 120a) states this wasn’t a commandment but rather a piece of good advice that G-d told Moses to give to them. Even so, the Torah testifies that although not obligated to do so, they followed G-d’s “advice” and each of them found a man from her father’s tribe to marry. As the Torah is eternal and relates only that which is relevant in every generation, what lesson can we take from here?

A: Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin notes that one might think that it would be difficult to find an appropriate spouse if one’s dating pool is artificially reduced by 11/12. We would therefore expect that at least some of the daughters of Tzelofchad would feel forced to ignore G-d’s non-binding advice, especially since the Talmud in Bava Basra (120a) states that all of them had already reached the age of 40. Therefore, the Torah emphasizes that while they may have felt restricted in their choices, each of them recognized that every match is predestined and arranged by G-d, Who knows what is best for each person and orchestrates it all with Divine Providence. Each of them understood that the apparent reduction in the size of her dating pool needn’t force her to remain single or to marry someone who will make her unhappy. Following G-d’s advice allowed each one to restrict her dating pool … to the one pre-destined “bashert” who would give her true happiness in life! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)


Return to the top

Parsha Tidbits

Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study



“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who left Egypt in organized groups under the leadership of Moses and Aaron.” Bamidbar 33:1

These Are The Journeys – Whenever the Torah uses the word, “Eilah” (these are), its intent is to indicate that only “these” were noteworthy and significant, whereas all others were irrelevant. – Midrash Rabbah, Shmos 1:2

These Are The Journeys – Why would the Torah use the word, “these are” in this instance to describe the journeys, when we know full-well that these journeys were only necessary because the Jews had sinned in the incident of the Spies, or so that they should not have a change of heart and return to Egypt? Why were these journeys important, whereas all others were inconsequential? Perhaps the intent of the verse was to separate between the first journeys that had been part of the original plan, and those that had followed after the sin of the Spies. “These are the journeys” refers to the first set mentioned in the verse and which were noteworthy. The next set of journeys which resulted from the sin, however, were not as noteworthy, and this is what the verse intended with the word, “Eilah.” – Or HaChaim

Ohr HaChaim offers another explanation for the use of the limiting term, “eilah,” based upon the words of the Zohar [Chelek 2:157,] which says that the reason the Jews spent all that time in the desert was to gather in scattered “sparks of holiness,” which were present in the desert. These sparks were there because Ishmael, the son of Abraham and possessor of much intrinsic holiness, had made the desert his home, [Bereishit 21:20] where he behaved in an unholy manner and shed his intrinsic holiness. The duration of each of their journeys in the desert depended on the amount of sparks present in each place. Those with greater degrees of holiness merited longer stays; those with lesser amounts only merited minimal stopovers. This mission, however, was achievable only through a nation purified by the “iron crucible” of Egypt, and therefore this set of journeys was truly unlike any other in history, for even the Patriarchs could not have accomplished this task. Therefore, the Torah uses the term “eilah,” to denote that these journeys were truly unlike their predecessors. “These” journeys accomplished something never before accomplished in history.


The Maggid of Mezritsch offered a homiletic interpretation of this verse based on the Midrash above. “These are the journeys” – This is the way a Jew must live. A Jew must never look back with satisfaction and assume that he has ascended all the heights of which he is capable. Instead, he must look back at his earlier actions and consider them insignificant and hope to improve upon them in the future. He must realize that even if he did his best at the time, surely by now, he is capable of exceeding that earlier standard and strive toward it.



 “And G-d spoke to Moses saying, ‘These are the names of the men who are to take possession of the Land for you: Elazar the Kohen and Joshua son of Nun. And one leader from each tribe shall you take to possess the Land. These are the names of the men; for the tribe of Judah, Caleb son of Yefunah…’” – Bamidbar 34:16-19

Take possession of the Land for you – Each tribal leader acted as if he was the designated representative to divide the land equally among the families and individuals. – Rashi

For the tribe of Judah – The tribes of Reuben and Gad were not listed among these, because they had already taken their share of the land on the other side of the Jordan. – Rabbeinu Bachya

These are the names of the men…These are the names of the men – This is stated twice, to teach that they were exemplary in their good names, and in their good deeds. – Baal HaTurim

The ways of the Torah are only peaceful, and therefore the Torah sought to ensure that the process of dividing the Land would be conducted in a manner that promoted peace to the maximum extent possible. Sifsei Kohen explains that this is the reason the Torah insisted that it be conducted only through the tribal leaders instead of by self-representing individuals. Furthermore, even the tribal leaders were not permitted to engage in petty partisanship and were expected instead to follow the words of Elazar and Joshua, who were granted Divine inspiration to assist them in dividing it among the tribes. Additionally, with a few notable exceptions, the verses refer to each of the tribal leaders as “Nassi” (prince) to enhance his prestige among the people and to dissuade them from contesting his decisions.


 “For he (the killer) must remain in his city of refuge until the death of the High Priest, and after the death of the High Priest, the murderer may return to the land of his possession.” Bamidbar 35:28

The death of the High Priest – What is his involvement with the inadvertent murderer? The Levites were assigned the six cities of refuge in addition to the forty two cities that were designated for them.  And in reality, all forty-eight cities were cities of refuge.  The Kohen Gadol (High Priest) is the leader of the Levites and therefore, once this killer entered his tribal property, he fell under his jurisdiction. – Chizkuni

The murderer may return – Although he has already received his punishment, by virtue of being sentenced and having served his time in the city of refuge, he is still referred to by the Torah as “the murderer.” This is because even once he has repented, one who has killed another man, even inadvertently, cannot return to his former status. He must remind himself at all times that he committed a terrible misdeed and contemplate that for the duration of his life. – Sifsei Kohen

Meshech Chochmah [20:29] derives from a verse that although the law of the inadvertent killer was applicable during the forty-year sojourn of the Jews in the wilderness, in actuality, an accidental killing never occurred during this entire period. How do we know this? For the Torah relates that upon the death of Aaron, every member of the Jewish nation wept and mourned his death. Rashi explains that this was due to his remarkable efforts to reconcile quarreling parties. Had there been even a single inadvertent murderer during this period, he wouldn’t have cried at the death of Aaron – the Kohen Gadol – but rather would have rejoiced at the event, since Aaron’s passing would have secured his freedom.

Return to the top

Hey, I Never Knew That


The Torah requires leaving belts of land around every city in the Land of Israel. The first 1,000 cubits (a cubit is 2 feet) are supposed to be left completely natural, with no construction or agriculture, and the next 2,000 are designated for agriculture (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Sabbatical and Jubilee Years, 13:1-5). One obvious benefit of this town planning is that there will be trees, grass, plants, and animals in proximity to the city, providing fresh air and beauty for the inhabitants. An additional hidden benefit is to limit the size of the cities because it is prohibited to build on these belts of land. Instead of creating huge metropolises, where there is crowding, crime, and grime, the Torah encourages the building of smaller cities, or suburbs, each with its own “nature reserve” surrounding it (Rabbi Hirsch on Bamidbar 34:4-5).

Return to the top

Word of the Week

Return to the top

Dear Rabbi

The land of Israel was divided amongst the tribes by lottery, as commanded by G-d (Bamidbar 33:54).  Is division of property by lottery a legitimate form of acquisition (kinyan) or is it merely a means to determine the division but does not actually affect a transfer of property? There are three major views in response to this question.  Rabbeinu Asher maintains that a lottery does not cause acquisition, and the property divided by the lottery must be formerly acquired by all parties. The Rashbam commentary sees a lottery as a form of acquisition because all parties agreed to rely completely on the results of the lottery.  The opinion of Maimonides is that the lottery itself does not transfer the property; rather, since the parties have benefited from the lottery by its clarification of the division, that benefit received creates the acquisition (Minchat Asher, Numbers 72).

Return to the top

Parsha at a Glance

This week’s parsha, Masei, concludes the Book of Bamidbar and sets the stage for Moshe’s parting words to the Jewish people, which will occupy much of the Book of Devarim.

Parshat Masei, which first recounts the journeys of the Jewish people from the time they left Egypt until this moment, when they stood ready to enter the Land of Israel.  G-d commanded the Jewish people not to be lax in driving out the inhabitants of the Land.  Failure to do so would subject them to constant problems and challenges in establishing independent Jewish authority and subject them to the negative influences of their idolatrous practices.

The parsha then delineates the boundaries of the Land of Israel, lists the new leaders of the tribes, and describes the forty-two cities set aside for the Tribe of Levi, which was not given a set portion of the land like the other tribes.

In addition to these cities, Moses established six Cities of Refuge – three on one side of the Jordan River and  three in the Land of Israel. These cities were set aside as sanctuary zones for people who committed what is referred to as “unintentional murder.”  Such individuals were permitted to flee to these cities and avoid retribution from the victim’s family.  (The laws governing “unintentional” and “intentional” murder are outlined as well.) One who flees to a city of refuge must remain there until the death of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest).

The parsha concludes with a petition by the tribe of Manasseh, whose leaders were concerned over the possible loss of a percentage of their inheritance. In last week’s parsha the daughters of Tzelophchod, who were part of this tribe, were granted a portion in the Land of Israel. This was done because their father left no male heirs. However, if they married outside their tribe, the land would transfer to the tribe or tribes of their husbands. G-d told Moses to inform the daughters that they could marry anyone they wished – but they were to be encouraged to marry within their own tribe so as to preserve the full inheritance. To their credit, the daughters of Tzelophchod heeded this advice and married within their tribe.

View all Parsha Partners Print This Page

Partners in Torah

A Division of Torah Umesorah