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
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
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
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
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,