Shabbat Parashat Matot-Masei| 5763
Man and the LandRabbi Macy Gordon
Our “double parasha,” Matot-Masei, concludes Bamidbar and brings Israel virtually to the end of its forty-year journey through the wilderness. The content of the narrative is primarily historical but contains some last minute cautionary emphasis. In one of these (Bamidbar 35:33-34), Moshe underscores the prohibition and tragedy of murder.
Virtually all societies prohibit the act of murder. However, most societies permit, and even mandate, the taking of life within the boundaries of the law, such as in war, self-defense, or as punishment for certain crimes. The warning in our text is not only about murder, but also about the shedding of blood without premeditation, about manslaughter through dereliction, negligence, or, to be more current, drunken driving, Russian roulette or drug trafficking.
Judaism is an earth-centered religion. Planting, harvesting, and caring for the earth are implicit in hundreds of commandments, both Biblical and Rabbinic. Human life is part of the harmony and purpose of creation. Even the term for Man in the Torah, Adam, is rooted in the word, “adamah” (the earth). Wanton destruction of a tree is forbidden. The requirement of burial is a return of man to his origins in the earth (see Bereishit 3:19).
At the same time, the earth serves man who was created to work it and to safeguard it. When the first man sinned, his punishment was to till the earth by the sweat of his brow but not always to reap its fruit. Sin is not only against G-d, but is also a rupture of the harmonious relationship between man and his environment. When Cain killed his brother, he severed his rootedness in the earth and became a wanderer. Paradise was lost! Sin causes a separation of man not only from G-d, but also from his natural existence.
Murder, idolatry and sexual depravity are cardinal sins of the Torah and are classified as tum’ah (acts of defilement). They are, thus, actions not intended for man by his nature and, in turn, pollute the earth. When man sins, the earth suffers. And when Israel sins in its own land, the land expels its people, like the human body that rejects the ingestion of toxic substances by vomiting them out. This graphic analogy is not mine. It is explicitly written in the Torah portion.
Yet, there is a Divine comfort in the fact that this Land of Israel, which for millennia was a barren wilderness, is now filled with orchards. The land that consistently refused strange masters for 1800 years, blooms again from the return of its own, whose love of this Holy Land perhaps eclipsed their personal sins. Man is created by G-d to be in harmony with his physical environment. The Jew, further, is bound both religiously and territorially to the Land of Israel. The theme is stressed repeatedly in the religious thinking of modern sages such as Rav Kook in his voluminous writings. Secular Zionists like Brenner and A.D. Gordon caught this theme as in a passing fragrance but, tragically, missed the authentically Jewish, spiritual dimensions.
Picturing Bnei Yisrael standing on the east bank of the Jordan, at the end of the Book of Bamidbar, should give us pause to reflect and ponder what this land means to us.
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