Friday, November 14, 2014

Yehoshua Chapters 20-23

Yehoshua Chapter 20
 
This chapter begins with a phrase we have not seen before in the Book of Yehoshua “וידבר ה אל יהושע לאמר” – “and Hashem spoke to Yehoshua, saying…” While Hashem has spoken with Yehoshua on many occasions, here the language of the Torah itself is used, reminding us of the familiar and oft-repeated opener “and Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying…” The reason for this seems to be that we are about to be told of the designation of the Cities of Refuge, which would serve as safe havens for individuals who commit murder accidentally.

Moshe Rabbenu himself wanted to participate in this mitzvah to the extent he could, so he established the first three cities on the eastern side of the Jordan River after the conquest of the land of Sihon and Og. However, technically speaking his act was not legally effective until all six were selected and consecrated, which is precisely what is described in our chapter. Once again, we find Yehoshua completing a task of Moshe Rabbenu; in this case, he is literally finishing a mitzvah begun by his mentor. The use of the Torah’s phraseology, generally reserved for commandments to Moshe, highlights this concept.

Such offenders must flee to these cities before their trials and, if found guilty, return there until the presiding Kohen Gadol (High Priest) dies. The detailed regulations of the treatment of the accidental killer are recorded in the Torah in Parashat Masei and again in Parashat Vaetchanan . What is noteworthy is that – in the Torah and in the Book of Yehoshua – the designation of these cities is always presented as a critical part of the settlement of the land.

Setting up these cities is not merely a practical measure taken to protect the rights of the inadvertent murderer or to provide an opportunity for rehabilitation. Rather, guarding the sanctity of life is of the essence of Jewish settlement. The cities accomplish this in two ways: By insisting that the murderer be exiled despite the fact that his action was unintentional, the Torah emphasizes the gravity with which it treats the loss of life and the care that must be taken to preserve it. At the same time, by allowing the killer refuge from revenge-inspired attacks at the hands of his victim’s family, the Torah demonstrates that his life is similarly precious.

Thinking back to the story of Cain and Abel in Beresheet, we recall that the first murder is also followed by the exiling of Cain. That narrative establishes the precedent that land upon which innocent blood is spilled becomes defiled as a result. A society that tolerates disrespect for the infinite value of human life denies the fact that mankind was created in Hashem’s image and reduces him to a mere animal. This is not a society that can aspire to the levels of holiness and wisdom to which we, the Jewish people, are summoned.
 
 
Yehoshua Chapter 21

This chapter describes how, once the twelve tribes are settled in their respective territories, the leaders of the households of the Tribe of Levi approach Yehoshua, Elazar the High Priest and the Elders of Israel to request the cities that the Torah promised them.

Like the tribe of Shimon, the tribe of Levi is destined to be scattered throughout Israel. However, unlike Shimon, the tribe of Levi transformed its passion into something positive and constructive – a passion for Hashem and His Torah. Therefore, rather than merely being denied their own contiguous parcel of land, they are “strategically located” throughout the tribes, with each tribe (including those in the Transjordan) contributing cities and their outskirts/surrounding areas for the Levites to settle in and cultivate.

This meant that there would be local “religious authorities” and teachers stationed throughout the Jewish commonwealth who would have a strong connection to the Mishkan/Bet Hamiqdash and embody and proclaim its principles but who would reside among the people. This way, every tribe, no matter its physical distance from the national sanctuary (be it the Mishkan or, eventually, the Bet Hamiqdash) and the infrequency of its visits there, will maintain a constant link to the mission of Torah study, holiness and justice represented by the Sanctuary through its engagement with the Levites and their teachings.

It is also worthy of mention that the cities of refuge were Levite cities: the Levites were given forty eight cities in total (thirteen cities for the Kohanim close to Jerusalem, ten cities for the rest of the family of Qehat, thirteen cities for Gershon, and twelve for Merari), all of which could serve as safe havens but only six of which were the official “cities of refuge” required by the Torah and established by Yehoshua.

The chapter concludes by once again highlighting the fact that Hashem had delivered the entire land of Israel into the hands of the Jewish people, exactly as he had promised their ancestors. No one had been able to stand up against them, threaten or defeat them. Whatever doubts may have lingered in the minds of the Jews regarding Hashem’s fulfillment of His promises – perhaps the lengthy sojourn in the wilderness and its attendant problems had caused some to lose hope – were now completely laid to rest.
 
 
 Yehoshua Chapter 22
This chapter focuses upon the tribes of Gad, Reuven and half of Menashe, and is the “epilogue” of their story. In exchange for being permitted to dwell in the Transjordan in the territory captured from Sihon and Og, the tribes of Reuven and Gad had promised Moshe Rabbenu that they would join the remaining tribes in fighting the battles of conquest and would not return to their homes until the settlement of the land was completed. They fulfilled their commitment and were given an acknowledgment and inspiring send-off from Yehoshua as they departed to resume life with their families on the eastern side of the Jordan River.

Shortly after this, however, the Jews in mainland Israel make an alarming discovery: since their return, the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe have constructed a large altar beside the Jordan River, an exact facsimile of the sacrificial altar of the Mishkan! This was understandably interpreted as a sign of rebellion against Hashem and an affront to the national unity of Israel that presupposed a single Sanctuary and Altar for all.

A delegation led by Pinhas and representatives of each of the tribes is dispatched to confront the leadership of the Transjordan Jewish community regarding this disturbing development. They come prepared for civil war if necessary. The elders of the two and a half tribes explain that they never, G-d forbid, intended to use the altar they had constructed for any sacrificial worship, nor did they mean for their action to be construed as one of separatism or rebellion.

On the contrary, they were genuinely concerned that their children, when visiting the national sanctuary in mainland Israel, might be rebuffed and rejected by their brethren as if they were non-Jews. The fact that they live in a geographically distinct area could cause the majority of the Jewish people, as well as the two and a half tribes themselves, to lose their sense of being one nation serving One God.

The minority population in the Transjordan could be perceived as “outsiders” by those in Israel proper, and this discrimination, so to speak, would in turn shape the identity of the children of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe. The symbolic altar, a precise copy of the one in the Mishkan, would remind their descendants that they are, in fact Jews, and that is why they possess an altar that is never used for any sacrificial service but merely evokes the memory of the national sanctuary on the western side of the Jordan. This plausible and sincere explanation is accepted by the delegation and no further action is taken against the two and a half tribes.
 

This narrative takes us back to the original discussion between the tribes of Reuven and Gad and Moshe Rabbenu. The tribes declared their intention to build pens for their animals and cities for their children in the Transjordan, where their families would remain and to which they would return after fighting alongside their brethren in Israel. Moshe Rabbenu, in agreeing to their proposition, reverses the order, instructing them instead to construct cities for their children and pens for their animals. The Rabbis comment that the tribes of Reuven and Gad cared more about their animals than their children! How did they feel justified in registering such a sweeping indictment of the tribes based upon a nuance in word order alone?
 

This story in the Book of Yehoshua sheds light on the answer. Moshe Rabbenu foresaw what the two tribes could not or did not – that their children’s connection to the Torah and the Jewish people would be jeopardized by the decision to remain on the eastern side of the Jordan. Their choice was motivated by financial concerns but neglected to take the spiritual welfare of future generations into account. 

It was only after the two and a half tribes returned to the Transjordan that the religious implications of their distance from mainland Israel dawned upon them, and they took action to rectify or, at the very least, ameliorate the problem by constructing the symbolic altar. Truth be told, the tribes in the Transjordan developed a much weaker Jewish identity over time – they would be the quickest to assimilate into non-Jewish culture and, centuries later, would be the first Jewish population to be sent into exile.

Text of Chapter 22
Audio Reading and Summary of Chapter 22


Yehoshua Chapter 23
This chapter records one of two “closing speeches” that conclude the Book of Yehoshua, delivered once stability and security had been achieved by the Jews in their settlement of the land of Israel. For this speech, Yehoshua gathered together the leaders of Israel, including judges, elders and officers. He reminded them of the support Hashem had provided them during the process of conquest and the fact that He had fulfilled all of His promises and assurances to the Jewish people with respect to their acquisition and division of the land.

Yehoshua reassured the Jews that his own death would not have any impact on the relationship between Hashem and His people moving forward. On the contrary, based on their own experience of His providential involvement in their lives, they knew that Hashem could be trusted to assist them in capturing and annexing the remaining swaths of territory that, at the time of the speech, were still under Canaanite dominion.

However, Yehoshua warned the leadership of the nation to be careful to diligently study and observe the Torah of Moshe Rabbenu, loving and worshiping Hashem, and not to allow the Jews to pursue intermarriage with or imitation of their gentile neighbors. If they do fail in their commitment to Torah and mitzvoth, Yehoshua warns them that they should expect Hashem to be equally reliable in His promise to withdraw His support for their military and political efforts and to exile the Jews from the holy land He had granted them.

Text of Chapter 23
Audio Reading and Summary of Chapter 23
 
 
 

No comments: