Mas’ei: Our Actions Sanctify or Pollute the Land

This week’s Torah portion teaches us to honor God by honoring every human being, to eschew violence, and to sustain Torah through our systems of law and welfare.  Would that each of us let this vision guides us when we enter the voting booth, and every other aspect of our lives.  According to the Torah, our very survival in this Land depends upon it.

In Israel we read this week Mas’ei, while abroad a double portion of Matot-Mas’ei is read.  My previous blog related to Matot.

Now on the border of the Land of Israel, we read a recap of the Israelite wanderings in the desert, one of several (somewhat different delineations of the borders of the Land, the designation of the cites of the Levites, including the cities of refuge for accidental killers, and the laws regarding who can flee to the cities of refuge. The right won by the daughters of Tzlof’khad to inherit property is conditioned on their marrying within their tribe.

In his Torah commentary, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch stresses that the laws of premeditated murders and accidental slayings are stressed again, just before we enter the Land, because our ability to live there is predicated on our honoring the Image of God in every human being.

Here is his commentary to Numbers 35:10, “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan.”

“When you cross over…  The land of God’s Torah is given to God’s people for the sake of the human being.  The most valuable fruit of the Land, the goal and end of the blessing that God blessed the Land with, is that soul of humanity that it sustains; when human beings carry out God’s Torah via what the Land provides.  The land is given to the entire people of God (Shimshon Breuer Hebrew translation from the original German-“all”) only on the condition that they honor the sanctity of life (Breuer-“soul”) of every human being, for they are holy according to the Torah. Innocent blood that is spilled without any consequences undoes one part of the knot that connects the Land with the nation, and between the Land and the nation, and God. (Look at 33-34, and my commentary there.) Honoring the sanctity of human life must come to immediate expression upon occupying the Land, and dividing it –the legal institution (cities of refugee) that is already mentioned among the foundations of the Mishpat haivri  (Jewish law). (Exodus 21:13)”

If we follow Hirsch’s instructions to jump to his commentary to 35:33-34, the Torah tells us that bloodshed pollutes and defiles the land.  The theme that the Land is like a living being that feels pain when we do wrong upon it, that the Land spit out other nations because they committed evil acts, and that the same can happen to us runs through the Torah, is very appropriate a week before Tisha B’Av, and Hirsch is not the only commentator that picks up on this.  However, Hirsch says something further.  It is not only the ability of the Jewish people to dwell in the Land of Israel that is dependent on our actions.  This is a universal principle, ” A human society that doesn’t value the life of every one of its members as holy to God, and doesn’t demand an accounting for all innocent blood that is shed, violates the conditions according to which they are permitted to inherit their land, and don’t fulfill the expectations of that land when it allow its resources to be used by that society. That society becomes a “polluter of its land, at the same time making the land polluted for that society.”

Hirsch goes yet one more step further.  When God tells Noah in Genesis (9:) “Whoever sheds the blood of a person, by another person shall his/her blood be shed, for God made the human being in God’s,” it is special that the human being has been told that s/he is created in God’s Image, and acknowledging this is the basic condition for receiving the land, and upon which humanity’s rule in the world is dependent.

Seeing as our portion deals with the taking of human life, not to mention the ultimate value of human life, Hirsch’s commentary naturally concentrates on the pollution of the land created by bloodshed. However, he doesn’t limit himself.  If we recognize God’s Image in every human being, we create a society that respects every human being, takes responsibility for the welfare and wellbeing of every human being, and establishes a system of law that ensures that every human being is treated decently.

“There are two matters here, “The social well being of the people based on submission to God and God’s Torah, and the presence of the Shekhina (God’s indwelling Presence) in the Land,  based on that which is promised to human beings if they raise up the public way of life to God.”

Paraphrasing Pirkei Avot, Hirsch writes, “The entire Torah is dependent on three pillars: Law, loving-kindness in the society, and the moral sanctification of our private lives….

If the purpose of a person’s life is simply violence, selfishness and the meeting of animal needs, there is no room to speak of law, of loving-kindness and of moral holiness.  And if the person in his/her home and the peoples in their countries give in to the idolatrous animal vision, there is no room for God in the land, for God demands that we do justice, love loving-kindness and walk humbly with moral holiness.”

Here Hirsch paraphrases Micah 6:8, “Know what is required of you, oh human, only to do justly, love loving-kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” This Shabbat is my late father’s Gregorian calendar birthday (and my nephew’s, who should happily live for many more years.)  Micha’s quote was one of his favorites.

In our upcoming Israeli elections, the fate of our system of law, of our social welfare system, of loving-kindness versus demonization of the other (How many times can certain politicians deride the “Left” in one sentence.), the degree to which we abuse our (necessary) power, to act violently and unjustly, and of our ability to honor God’s Image in every human being, are all on the line.

May we vote wisely, and merit to remain in the Land.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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