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Vol. 8 # 38 JL 12-13, '96: Parshiyos Matos and Masai

Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein

Wandering in Exile

          Our second parsha this week, Masai, describes the journeys of the  Israelites in the desert. Every excursion and encampment is enumerated.  The Ramban (Nachmanides) begins an investigation: what was the purpose of  listing the names of the travels and encampments?

          The first point is quoted from Rashi. In order that we not think that the wandering was a cruel punishment, we are informed that there was actually very little traveling for forty years. There was not a constant state of movement; sometimes they would remain in one spot for lengthly intervals.

          Rambam, in the Guide for the Perplexed, gives an additional explanation. The years in the desert illustrated the incredible kindness of the Creator. That the Israelites survived in a place far from civilization for so many years, attests to the great miracles of the Torah. It is human nature that statements expressed orally are eventually relegated to mere hearsay, and people will deny the miracles. Therefore, he commanded that the Torah contain a clear account of the precise locations, in order to dispel such denial.

          Ramban (Nachmanides) mentions these ideas, but concludes that there are more subtle, mysterious reasons as well. Further discussion is found in the Abarvanel, Ohr Hachayim and Divre Yoel. The parsha is to indicate to us that all of our lives, our journeys and dwellings, are dictated by heaven.  There are profound reasons for our being where we are at any time. By showing exemplary conduct, great corrections and salvations can be performed -- often in ways that we cannot possibly imagine at the time. In each of the places in which the Israelites tread, traces of holiness remain -- sometime, G-d will reveal His purpose for having the Jews bring out those "sparks." The medrash concludes that the Israelites will again return to the desert -- to the very same places -- before the final redemption!

The Atonement of Exile

           It is important to note that the last sections of the Book of Bamidbar (Numbers) discuss the laws of accidental murder. The atonement procedure requires the killer to go into exile.

           The laws of exile for the accidental murderer remind us that there is hidden reasoning behind G-d's decrees of exile. The Jew has wandered from time immemorial: Avraham traveled from Babylon; our forefathers wandered in a land not their own (Canaan); they sojourned in Egypt; they wandered for forty years in the desert. They were exiled to Babylon, Persia and the Medes; were subjugated by the Greeks and Romans; were scattered throughout the earth. Somehow, the hardships of the journey atone for the Jewish People, just as the exile of the killer atones for his accidental crime.


           Among the laws mentioned here, is the prohibition of Kofer -- redemption money. The killer cannot pay damages to the relatives of the dead man in order to avoid the law of exile.

          Ramban (Nachmanides) questions why the verses mention the crime of paying redemption money only after the exile the killer has been to exile.  Kli Chemdah answers. The commentary of Ritva explains that there are two aspects of the exile for manslaughter. 1: atonement in the eyes of G-d. 2: exempting the killer from the avenging relative. (The Torah states that a relative is not held liable for the death of the killer -- this, in effect, makes the unintentional killer potentially liable with the death-penalty). As far as #1 is concerned (atonement), any minimal amount of exile is sufficient. The man is considered forgiven after a short time in exile. However, #2 still applies -- the relatives may still be angry. The killer must still stay in exile until the death of the Kohein Gadol (the head Kohein). At this stage, the relative can no longer justify avenging the death of his family member.

           Therefore, writes the Kli Chemdah, we would have thought that after the killer has gone to exile briefly, he has atoned for his crime. He now should be able to appease the relatives for the pain which they have incurred, and be enabled to go free. The Torah therefore has to inform us that the man still stays in exile.

           However, the point is problematic. The relative does not have to take revenge. Why does the Torah need to prohibit the relatives from taking redemption money? Indeed, it may well be that the law stating that the killer remains in exile is for the court to administer, but there may be no crime for the killer to appease the relative, nor any crime for the relative to accept the money. Nonetheless, the relative's agreement that he forgives the killer may not be binding -- for the Torah has expressly stated that redemption not be used to exempt the man. The relative may still be able to renege, and force the man once more into exile.

          It seems to us that if the Jews need their thousands of years of exile, there is no guarantee that monetary payment will spare us. There would not be any crime of trying to appease our accuser, but no way of guaranteeing that, indeed, he will not renege and, once again, press charges.

(c) Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein and Genesis, '97



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