Parshat Masei: The Torah’s Review of Bnai Yisrael’s Travels in the Wilderness

These are the journeys of Bnai Yisrael that went out from Egypt in their groups through Moshe and Ahron. (BeMidbar 33:1)

The final parasha of Sefer BeMidbar reviews the travels of Bnai Yisrael in the Wilderness. The commentaries are concerned with the inclusion of this material in the Torah. The Torah is written very concisely. The recounting of the journeys in the Wilderness seems superfluous.

Rashi explains that these journeys are recounted in order to communicate a key aspect of the Wilderness experience. Hashem had decreed that the nation should spend forty years wandering in the Wilderness. Hashem did not constantly move Bnai Yisrael from one location to the next. The nation only traveled forty-two times during the forty years.[1]

This is a fitting conclusion for Sefer BeMidbar. The sefer recounts the changing of the relationship between Hashem and His nation. This change was brought about by the nation’s refusal to enter the Land of Israel. Hashem decreed that Bnai Yisrael should wander in the Wilderness for forty years. According to Rashi, these passages capture the nature of this decree and Hashem’s mercy even when punishing the nation.

Maimonides offers an alternative explanation for the description of the various journeys. He explains that the Wilderness experience involved a great miracle. The nation was sustained for forty years in a land of complete desolation. Hashem provided Bnai Yisrael with water, food and all other needs. The generation that experienced these wanderings could recognize the miracle of survival. However, future generations would not have the benefit of experiencing the forty years of wandering. These future generations might not appreciate the extent of this miracle. They might assume that the nation traveled near populated areas. They might believe that the path taken by Bnai Yisrael avoided arid areas. The Torah provides a detailed description of the journey. All of the stations at which the nation camped are enumerated. This route does not pass through populated areas. The path described in the parasha leads through an arid, desolate wilderness. With this information the reader can appreciate the miracles required for Bnai Yisrael’s survival during these forty years.[2]

The Boundaries of the Land of Israel

Command Bnai Yisrael and say to them: When you come to the land of Canaan, this is the land within the borders of the land of Canaan that shall be your hereditary territory.
(BeMidbar 34:2)

Hashem describes to Moshe the borders of the Land of Israel. This land will be divided into portions and distributed among the tribes. Rashi explains that these boundaries are very important in halachah. Various mitzvot only apply in the land of Israel. Therefore, any territory outside of the borders is exempt from these commandments.[3]

This description of the boundaries indicates that the eastern border is the Jordan River. This is difficult to explain. The tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe settled in the territory conquered from Sichon and Og. In general, any land conquered by the nation is considered by halachah to be part of the Land of Israel.[4] This land was situated on the eastern side of the Jordan. The proper eastern border should be the eastern boundary of this territory!

Rav Moshe Feinstein Zt”l explains that there is a basic difference between the Land of Israel west of the Jordan and the territory to the east. The land to the west was promised to Avraham and the forefathers. It was destined to be conquered and become the Land of Israel. The land of Sichon and Og was not included in this covenant. It was not predetermined that this land should become part of the Land of Israel.[5]

This distinction can provide a possible answer to our question. Moshe had awarded the land of Sichon and Og to Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe. However, he had stipulated a condition. This land would become their portion after they had conquered the territory west of the Jordan. Moshe had required that first the land of the covenant must be captured. Then, this additional land could become part of the Land of Israel. The sanctity of the land of Sichon and Og was suspended until the land of the covenant was possessed.

Now, the description of the boundaries can be explained. Hashem specifically described the borders of the land of the covenant. This is the land that must first be sanctified. Once this is accomplished, the land of Sichon and Og can be possessed and sanctified.

The Role of the Mesorah in Determining the Correct text of TaNaCh

And the cities that you should give to the Leveyim – the six cities of refuge that you will give so that the murderer may flee there and in addition to them, forty-two cities. (BeMidbar 35:6)

The Torah explains that the Land of Israel was to be divided among the tribes of Israel. Each shevet – tribe – was to receive a portion in the land. However, Shevet Leyve – the tribe of Leyve – was not to receive a typical portion. Instead, each of the other tribes was instructed to designate cities within its portion for the Leveyim to live in. Tribes that received a larger portion would be required to provide a greater number of cities. Tribes that received a smaller portion would apportion a lesser number of cities to the Leveyim. These cities – arey migrash – were to serve as the settlements of the Leveyim.

In addition to these cities, the Leveyim were also assigned the cities of refuge. These cities of refuge are also discussed in our parasha. A person who accidentally takes another’s life is exiled to one of these cities of refuge. The portion of the Leveyim also included these cities of refuge. In addition to the arey migrash, the Leveyim lived in these cities.

Our pasuk explains that the Leveyim were to be given forty-two arey migrash and an additional six cities of refuge as their portion in the Land of Israel. Of course, these instructions could only be carried out once the Land of Israel was captured and occupied. Therefore, it would be Yehoshua’s – Moshe’s successor – responsibility to carry out these instructions.

Sefer Yehoshua outlines the process by which these cities were assigned to Shevet Leyve. The Navi provides a detailed account. It enumerates the number of cities contributed by each tribe, lists the specific cities, and identifies the family within the Shevet Leyve that received each city. As required by the Torah, forty-eight cities were assigned to the Leveyim – forty-two arey migrash and an additional six cities of refuge.

There is an interesting problem in the account in Sefer Yehoshua. In order to fully appreciate this problem, it is helpful to begin with an outline of the account in Sefer Yehoshua. The account is highly structured. The account has two parts. In the first portion of the account, each family within the Shevet Leyve is identified and the tribes within Bnai Yisrael that contributed cities to this family are listed. This portion of the account ends by indicating the total number of cities provided to each family by the tribes. The second portion of the account again identifies each of the families and the tribes that contributed cities for this family. However, in this portion of the account the names of the specific cities contributed by each tribe are listed. Like the prior portion of the account, this portion of the account ends by providing the number of cities contributed to the family.

In the Navi’s account of the cities to be given to the family of Merari there is a problem. In the first portion of the account, the Navi explains that twelve cities were assigned to the family of Merari. These cities were contributed by the tribes of Reuven, Gad and Zevulun.[6] In the second portion of the account the Navi provides a detailed enumeration of the cities contributed by each of these tribes. The Navi lists the four cities contributed by Shevet Zevulun and the four from Shevet Gad. The accounting ends by repeating that the family of Merari received a total of twelve cities.[7] The problem with this account is obvious. The Navi only list eight cities – those contributed by Shevet Zevulun and Shevet Gad. Missing are the four cities assigned to Merari from the portion of Shevet Reuven.

Rabbaynu David Kimchi – RaDaK – discusses this problem. He begins by noting the discrepancy. The family of Merari was to receive twelve cities from the tribes of Zevulun, Gad and Reuven. However, the detailed enumeration of these cities only accounts for eight cities. The four to be provided by Shevet Reuven are not listed. RaDaK comments that he has seen alternate versions of Sefer Yehoshua that “correct” this apparent omission in the text. In these versions, a list is provided of the four cities contributed by Shevet Reuven. This list does correspond with a list provided in Divrei HaYamim. RaDaK explains that in his research of carefully copied versions of the text he has never seen this correction. Therefore, he rejects the suggested correction. RaDaK adds that it is apparent from the writings of Rav Hai that he too was aware of the problem in our text but nonetheless insisted that the text is accurate.[8]

There are three difficulties with RaDaK’s comments. First, although RaDaK rejects the alternate version of the text, he seems to concede that these alternate version is more reasonable and do solve the problem in the text. Second, RaDaK rejects these alternate versions of the text. However, this leaves a problem. There is an inconsistency in the narrative. The cities contributed by Shevet Reuven are omitted. RaDaK does not make any effort to explain the inconsistency! It seems strange that RaDaK rejects the more reasonable version of the text and accepts the more traditional version without offering any explanation for the clear inconsistency in our version. Finally, RaDaK supports his conclusion by referring to Rav Hai. He notes that Rav Hai was aware of the problem in the text but insisted that nonetheless, the text should not be altered. What is RaDaK adding to his analysis through referring to Rav Hai? RaDaK has already concluded that the more ancient versions of the text that he examined do not enumerate cities contributed by Shevet Reuven.

In order to understand RaDaK’s position, it is important to appreciate the fundamental issue that he faced. RaDaK was confronted with a clear inconsistency in the text of the Navi. On the one hand, alternate versions of the text resolved this issue by adding a verse. These alternate versions are more consistent than our text. From an analytical, scholarly perspective these alternate texts seem to be more reasonable than our text. On the other hand, all of the ancient versions of the text that RaDaK could authenticate were identical to our text and contained the inconsistency. RaDaK was faced with the dilemma of choosing between unauthenticated alternate texts – that make sense – and more a more traditional text – that is clearly problematic.

In other words, the issue can be reduced to a simple question. How do we determine the proper text? Do we establish the text through analytic scholarship or through tradition? RaDaK maintains that the actual text is determined by mesorah – tradition. This is an important conclusion. In determining the text of TaNaCh, we are not permitted to decide issues based on analytic scholarship alone. We can use this method as a guide in choosing between authenticated alternates. But we cannot establish the text on the basis of analytic scholarship alone. Instead, the mesorah establishes the text.

But there is another element to RaDaK’s analysis. RaDaK does not attempt to explain the inconsistency in our text. Apparently, he maintains that providing an explanation is not fundamental to his decision to accept the ancient texts. In other words, even if the text suggested by mesorah is obviously problematic it must be accepted. This implies that – in establishing the text of TaNaCh – mesorah is not just more important than analytic scholarship. It actually defines the text. In other words, the key issue is not to determine the actual text created by the author. Halachah requires that the valid text is the one indicated by mesorah.

An illustration will help clarify this point. Let us assume we discovered that the text of Sefer Yehoshua contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls corresponds with the alternate text that RaDaK had seen. The Dead Sea Scrolls predate Rav Hai. Would this discovery suggest that the alternate text should be accepted? Could it not be argued that these ancient documents are more accurate and less subject to errors and omission that may have slipped into the text with the passage of time? The implication from RaDaK’s comments is that we would still reject the alternate text! How is this implied? RaDaK seems completely willing to concede that the alternate text is more consistent than our text. In turn, this implies that RaDaK is not primarily concerned with determining the actual original text. Instead, he focuses on the text established through mesorah. Mesorah determines the proper and accepted text. In other words, the accepted text is not necessarily the one that most closely corresponds with the original document. The accepted text is the text indicated by mesorah. We cannot establish a continuous chain of mesorah leading to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Therefore, in regards to determining the mesorah text, these scrolls are irrelevant.

It should also be noted that RaDaK’s approach seems to be the only reasonable course to be taken by halachah. How can we ever determine the exact wording of the original text? Let us return to our example of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Our discovery would prove only that the alternate text existed at the time at which these scrolls were created. We cannot know if the text in the Dead Sea Scrolls was the only text in existence at that time. It is possible that our text also existed at that time! Therefore, halachah requires that these issues be resolved on the only basis that is practical. Mesorah defines the proper text.

Now, we can appreciate RaDaK’s reference to Rav Hai. RaDaK’s point – in making this reference – is that Rav Hai’s version of the text was the same as ours. Because RaDaK maintains that mesorah actually establishes the text, this is a relevant observation. Rav Hai was his generation’s transmitter of the mesorah. His comments indicate that there is a strong and established mesorah regarding our text. Based on the criteria he has established for determining the proper text, this indication of the mesorah is fundamental to his conclusions.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 33:1.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 3, chapter 50.

[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 34:2

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Terumot 1:2.

[5] Rav Moshe Feinstein, Derash Moshe, Sefer BeMidbar 32:29.

[6] Sefer Yehoshua 21:7.

[7] Sefer Yehoshua 21:34-38.

[8] Rabbaynu David Kimchi (RaDaK), Commentary on Sefer Yehoshua 21:7.