The last two parshiyot of Sefer Bamidbar are primarily concerned with summarising the forty-year journey of the Jewish people through the desert and with dividing up the land of Israel, allotting an inheritance to each family. These parshiyot look backwards and forwards, a reminder of the miracles and Divine protection that allowed Bnei Yisrael to reach this point whilst also focusing on the human effort that would be required to conquer the land and settle it.
Unlike other tribes, the tribe of Levi did not receive a single portion of land. Instead, they were given forty-eight cities scattered throughout the land. Hashem tells Moshe: “the pasture of the cities that you should give to the Levi’im should extend 1000 cubits outside the city wall” (Bamidbar, 35:4). However, in the very next pasuk, Moshe is told “you should measure outside the city… 2000 cubits with the town in the centre and this will be the pasture for the cities” (Bamidbar, 35:5). There is an obvious contradiction in these pesukim: should the pasture around the cities of the Levi’im extend 1000 or 2000 cubits outside the town walls? The Mishna in Sotah (5:3) records two ways in which this contradiction is resolved. According to Rabbi Akiva, there should be 1000 cubits of pasture. The 2000-cubit measurement refers to the Techum Shabbat – the furthest outside a city one is allowed to travel on Shabbat. According to Rabbi Eliezer, there should be 1000 cubits of pasture and a further 1000 cubits of fields and vineyards. Rambam rules that there should actually be 3000 cubits surrounding each city, 1000 of pasture and a further 2000 of fields and vineyards (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shemittah and Yovel, 13:2).
This debate is more fundamental than just about how much land the Levi’im should be given. Dr Rabbi Avraham Walfish suggests that this is about “delineating the boundaries of civilisation and of human justice” and agency (http://thegemara.com/the-measure-of-tractate-sotah/#fnref-476-15). The city represents human habitation, it is where people live and function, where courts of law have jurisdiction and authority. However, there is a limit to the influence and reach of human civilisation. Whether it is 1000, 2000 or even 3000 cubits outside the city, there is a mandated area of uninhabited pastureland and there is a place beyond which it is forbidden for people to travel on Shabbat. In this area, human control is limited.
In fact, these parshiyot deal with the limits of human agency and control. Parshat Matot opens with the Jewish people waging war on Midyan. When the spoils of war are divided up, a proportion of the animals are offered to G-d (Bamidbar, 31:28). This tribute to Hashem constitutes a recognition that human power is limited and that war cannot be won without the help of G-d. Parshat Masei deals with the laws of one who kills by mistake (Bamidbar 35:11), addressing a situation in which a person’s actions have an unintended result and in which human courts have a limited ability to deliver justice.
However, these parshiyot also deal with the power humans are given. Parshat Matot opens with the laws of vows (Bamidbar, 30). A person is commanded to keep an oath that they have made, as Rambam rules explicitly (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Nedarim, 1:4). It is forbidden to make a vow and then break it. This illustrates the power the Torah gives to people’s words. The story of the tribes of Reuven and Gad asking to live on the other side of the Jordan river and not in the land of Israel, and their request being granted (Bamidbar 32) shows human initiative and agency. And although half of the tribe of Menashe is also given land on the other side of the Jordan, the daughters of Tzelafchad gain an inheritance in the land of Israel (Mishna Bava Batra, 8:3) – because they demanded it (Bamidbar, 27:4).
These contrasting and intertwining threads of the last two parshiyot of Sefer Bamidbar are reflective of their dual nature as they look both backwards and forwards. They are related to Bnei Yisrael as they encamp opposite Yericho and begin to prepare themselves for a new leader and a new stage in their history. The message Hashem is giving them at this point is clear. They are reminded of their years in the desert, when everything was provided for them directly by G-d. They are reminded of the limits of human agency. Yet they are also reminded of the powers they have. They are expected to enter the land of Israel and wage war. We are expected to use our power and influence, we are expected to use our initiative, speak up and take action. We are expected to try our hardest and do all we can. We are expected to extend the pasture and fields not just 1000 or 2000 but 3000 cubits beyond the city.