In Masei, our reading from the Torah this week, we will conclude reading from the book of Numbers, the fourth book of Torah. After the conquest of Midian the Israelites’ subsequent journeys en route to their promised land all have a place in this parashah. Yet what is more remarkable than the battles and wars forged through these journeys is the underlying spirit which pervades the text. The ancient Israelites must engage in the difficult task of expelling idolatrous behavior as they attempt to establish monotheistic worship and practice. But even as they pursue war to achieve their efforts, Torah reminds them that they must ultimately work to become a nation who, collectively, pursues lasting peace.
The Israelites are commanded, “You shall not pollute the land in which you live for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I myself abide, for I the Lord abide among the Israelite people.” [ Numbers 35:33-34] Admittedly, these words are hard to accept, given that just a few chapters earlier, the Israelites were commanded to “wreak the Lord’s vengeance on Midian.” [ Numbers 31:3] How in one part of our parashah can we read words which command us to “wreak vengeance” and then also read words which tell us “not to pollute the land by bloodshed?”
Much has been written in Jewish commentaries of the place of war in Jewish history and in Jewish life, and generally, war is regarded as a necessary, yet unfortunate evil, the step that is taken only as an absolute last resort Ultimately, the message of Torah, and of subsequent generations of Jewish commentary, involves the pursuit of peace in all of its forms, by living lives of holiness and compassion, seeking to repair and rebuild our fragmented world. It is as if Torah wants to teach that war will be a necessary part of taking control of the land of Israel. Yet once the Israelites have the land in their possession, there will be certain behaviors expected of them – namely that they pursue lives of peace, fairness and justice.
At this time of year, the quest of our ancestors becomes part of our journey too. We find ourselves in the darkest period of the Jewish calendar, the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, in which we commemorate the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem and other calamities which have befallen our peopl throughout history. From this time, we will emerge into a period of consolation and comfort, the seven weeks that lead from Tisha b’Av to our celebration of Rosh ha-shanah. In this season, as we focus our attention on our connection to the land of Israel, we also begin to focus our attention on what is good, pure, and holy in our lives and what “defiling” aspects of our own existence we might seek to improve upon and correct in the year ahead. Ultimately, from bringing about war, and being victimized by war, Jewish tradition’s reaction rings equally true – pursue peace within yourself, within your family, within your community, and upon your land. It is up to us to work together, determining how we will pursue and achieve such significant and meaningful goals.