Five Rashis, Mas’ei: What Makes Us Who We Are?

Reviewing Our Travels

The first Rashi in the parsha offers two reasons the Torah records the places the Jews encamped in the desert. R. Moshe haDarshan deduces that in thirty-eight years of their wanderings in the desert, they lived in twenty places (since the first fourteen were before the sin of the spies, and eight more happened in the fortieth year, after Aharon’s passing). In Devarim 1;46, Rashi had said that the Jews spent nineteen years in Kadesh, leaving nineteen years for the nineteen others.

Moving once a year is no fun, but it is not what forty years of wandering sounds like at first blush. It suggests or reminds us that even when Hashem is punishing people for well-deserved sins, the punishment hides within it more mercy than we might note.

Tanchuma, a second reading, complements this one, seeing this list as an opportunity for some nostalgia. Tanchuma compares it to a father whose son was ill, and they had to travel far for his medical care. On the way back, once he was healed, remembering all their travails has a different character than when they were living it forward. Once hard times have been overcome, thinking back on them can have more of a calm and accepting element than when living it.

Rashi doesn’t connect them, but that can be true of noting Hashem’s kindness in moving us around less often than He could have. By noting only twenty encampments in all those years, we notice also Hashem’s kindness, which we might have missed while living through it all.

The Irresistibility of Cultural Influence

A few times in verses 51-55, the Torah stresses that we have to rid the land of the people living there, using the word והורשתם, which Rashi to verse 52 explains as expel them.  On verse 51, he notes that Moshe Rabbenu brings that up when speaking of their crossing the Jordan, implying that if they didn’t agree, the Jordan would drown them. On verse 53, Rashi understands the Torah to be making our successful habitation of the land contingent on having expelled them. Finally, verse 55 warns that they will be like barbs, which Rashi thinks will gouge out our eyes.

It is not, by far, the only time the Torah issues this warning, yet I am not sure the message penetrates. The Torah is saying that the Canaanite influence was so pernicious and pervasive that we would necessarily absorb all or part of their outlook, leading us away from Hashem.

The question becomes how much of that was unique to those seven nations, how easy it is to set up an independent culture, which takes only the good of the world around it.  For the Canaanites, the only workable solution was expelling those who did not fully accept the Jewish way of looking at the world. Otherwise, we’ll be in trouble, because the truths of Hashem’s Torah are not amenable to compromise or watering down.

Trusting Our Leaders

34;17 starts listing the heads of the tribes אשר ינחלו לכם, who will inherit for you. Rashi explains that they will represent their tribes at the division of Israel, and will be in charge of apportioning their tribe’s land among families and individuals.  Their choices will be binding on all of us.

It’s a small example and a valuable reminder that we sometimes have to trust our leaders to act for us, sometimes will have no say or input into what happens, only seeing after the fact what they’ve done. Here, it’s deciding each person’s share in the Land of Israel, which will affect them and their descendants for all time (since yovel gives the Land back to them, since they’re supposed to try to hold on to their ancestral land). And it’s done without input, in the moment, from the people themselves.

Does Territory Determine Character?

Rashi to 35;14 notes that there are three cities of refuge on either side of the Jordan, despite there being only two and a half tribes on the east, nine and a half on the west. He offers the Gemara’s answer, that in Gilad (the east side), there were many murderers, derived from Hoshea 6;8, that Gilad is a city of evildoers, stained with footprints of blood (presumably, of the victims).

The verse itself could have been describing the reality hundreds of years later, but that Hashem anticipates that and assigns cities of refuge based on it implies that it is a universal truth that Gilad will have more murderers. Why?

A second problem is that cities of refuge are for murderers who did not plan to kill their victim. How could Hashem know, and what would it mean that Hoshea would point to it as a flaw in the region, that Gilad is full of unwitting murderers?

To me, the simplest answer is that the Gemara and Rashi were saying that Gilad would always have murderers, and that when a society has a lot of murder in it, some of those will be of the not fully witting kind. Unwitting murder doesn’t just happen, I think the Gemara is implying, it’s an extension of a society that doesn’t value life enough to be sufficiently careful about avoiding death.

How could the Torah know (in a world of freewill) that Gilad would always have more murderers? I have no idea, but the idea that comes to mind is that geography might impact us more than we realize or care to admit. If so, some aspect of life in Gilad might be what the Torah was pointing to as always leading to more killings. The deliberate ones are for the people to judge; the perpetrators of the not fully witting ones, evidence that the society has not yet learned the sanctity of life, are for the cities of refuge to hold.

First Among Equals

36;11 tells us the names of the five daughters of Tslofchad, whom we met in Parashat Pinchas, in a different order. Rashi explains that here the Torah gave them in age order, the order in which they married (Rashi doesn’t speak to the echoes of Lavan’s claim that older daughters should marry first). Everywhere else, however, they were listed according to their wisdom, Rashi says.

Had he stopped there, I’d have inferred that their wisdom is the real way to judge their value, and that here the Torah changed the order for the technical reason that the verse is discussing their marriage. Except that Rashi says this shows that they were all actually equal to each other!

What he seems to mean is that the switch shows that in each place the Torah listed them in the order relevant to that one place. Not that wisdom is the “real” order and age a coincidental one, but that for these women, any listing had to choose some way to do it, when they were all fundamentally equal.

Rashis on Mas’ei get us thinking about our history of movement, our leaders taking the land for us, making sure we have the right cultural influences around us, hoping that our geographical surroundings shape us well, or being part of a family in which we are interchangeably good, all ways that this parsha shows the multitude of factors making us who we are.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.