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Questions On Parashat Massei

As I read the parashiot, the text gives me food for thought. I’m sharing my questions here in the hope that it’ll lead to answers and also provoke interesting ideas for you! This post is on Parashat Massei, in Bamidbar, and follows my posts on Mattot and Balak/Pinchas.

1) There’s some noticeably peculiar grammar in 33:7 where the subject switches back and forth from “them” to “he,” instead of maintaining the same subject. From Artscroll’s translation, “They journeyed from Etham and it turned back to Pi-hahiroth, which is before Baal Zephon, and they encamped before Migdol.” “ויסעו מאתם וישב על פי החירות אשר על פני בעל צפון ויחנו לפני מגדול”

What turned back? It can’t be the camp, since then the verse would have said “and they turned back.” Perhaps the heavenly cloud?
In any case, why turn back?

A related question concerns Artscroll’s translation of the place name from which “it turned back.” Was the name החירות
Hahiroth- or was it Pi-hahiroth?

While Artscroll’s translation above seems pretty cut-and-dried, consider first that “Pi” means mouth in Hebrew, and the metaphore “mouth” is used in association with places to say their edge or opening, just like the metaphore “lip.” That is, the metaphore’s used that way in Hebrew [and obviously in English too; lots of expressions in English come from Biblical Hebrew as it turns out]. So “Pi-hahiroth” can mean the “mouth of ‘Hahiroth.'”

And if we look at the next verse, it suggests just that: “They journeyed from before Hahiroth and passed through…”
ויסעו מפני החירות
Notice that here, the word “Pi” is omitted for “Mipnei,” which literally means ‘from the face’ and is ordinarily used to mean ‘from before’. So the place is now called Hahiroth.

So was the place called Hahiroth or Pi-Hahiroth? If the former, why translate the name once as Pi-Hahiroth and once as Hiroth?

(If you’re wondering why verse 33:8 says they “journeyed from before Hahiroth” when the 33:7 said they encamped before Migdol, it has to do with the Hebrew verb for “returning.” In Hebrew, the same verb for ‘return’ can be used to mean to settle – so 33:7 can be read as “They journeyed from Etham and it [lit.: settled =] encamped upon Pi-hahiroth, which is before Baal Zephon, and they encamped before Migdol.” Hiroth aka Pi-Hahiroth may thus be the same place as Migdol, or Migdol may simply be a name for some big landmark like a mountain or rock pillar, as it contains the same root letters as “big” – gadol – גדל

ויסעו ממרה ויבאו אילמה ובאילם שתים עשרה עינת מים ושבעים תמרים ויחנו שם

They journeyed from Marah and arrived at Elim; in Elim were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they encamped there.

The Torah isn’t in the habit of counting every rock and bush crossed along the way, so why mention these springs and date palms? If you want to say that it’s the reason they encamped, that may well be, but we have references numerous other encampments where the reason isn’t given. Why should it matter now?

No, the important thing about this verse is not really the mention of palms or springs – although it certainly is exceptional- but rather the numbers. 12 springs? You know, like the 12 tribes? 70 date palms… like the 70 members of Jacob’s household who descended with him to Egypt? Or perhaps like the 70 nations of the world

I have an inkling that the Midrash has something to say about this, and likewise the commentators. I unfortunately don’t have any volumes of Midrash so I can’t dig into this. My best guess at explaining the significance would be something like

– The water corresponds to the Torah, as the Talmud in Baba Kamma (82a) says, “there is no water but Torah.” “אין מים אלא תורה”
– The 12 springs of water refer to the tribes, and are a metaphor for their own learning approaches / perspectives on the Torah.
– The springs feed the date palms, and thus the 70 children are a further expansion of the number of ways to read/understand the Torah, going from the 12 tribes’ views to 70. As the expression says, the Torah has 70 facets. “שבעים פנים לתורה” (apparently first seen in the alphabet letters of Rabbi Akiva, per Wikipedia, and in Ibn Ezra’s commentary.
– Alternately, if the date palms represent the nations of the world, I believe our Sages would say that the world continues to exist only in the merit of the righteous ones, and thus the date palms – e.g. nations – survive thanks to the merit of the great Torah scholars. The question remains though, why the nations would be symbolized by the date palms – e.g. a tree giving sweet fruits.

A related few notes I thought were interesting.

They left a place known as “Bitter” for Eilim where they found water (presumably potable, being spring water, and thus in English freshwater is also called sweet) , and of course the dates are sweet, the antithesis of bitter.

When Yocheved (or her daughter?) went down to Egypt, she was but a fetus. Yet she is counted amongst the 70 souls who went down to Egypt with Jacob. Perhaps there’s something related to ‘ who strikes a soul [to death] will surely die.” ואיש כי יכה נפש מות יומת
– ויקרא כד:יז
Vayikra 24:17

3) One of the places visited along the journey was called Ovoth. (33:44) I’m curious where the name comes from, as the name sounds related to Ov in the sense, of “one who inquires of Ov and Yideoni” – one who inquires of magicians and idols about the future, a banned practice in Judaism.שואל אוב וידעוני

There is however an extra vav in the phrase cited, whereas Ovoth is written אוב, not to mention that the plural of Ov would normally be Ovim as Ov doesn’t have a feminine suffix.

4) Why are the plains of Moav referred to by the unusual word, ערבות, instead of the more common מישור? The root is ערב, which can relate to guarantors as in the phrase All Israel Are Responsible One For The Other, כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה or can also related to night, arabs, or mixing. (33:49)

5) Why is the possessive ה attached to the word ארץ when it is in a conjunction, a סמיכות, with the proper noun Canaan? According to regular Hebrew grammar, including Biblical grammar, the ה shouldn’t be there in a conjunction involving a proper noun. (34:2)

6) Why repeat “this shall be for you the western border” in verse 34:6, when the verse started with “And the western border: and it shall be for you…” I see that Rashi comments on a third reference to the border in the same verse, saying that “and the bounded area” refers to certain islands in the sea as being part of Israel’s border. But that doesn’t explain the other two references, which appear repetitive.

(A related question one might as is why repeat the word “and” – ‘And the western border: and it shall be for you [lit: and it was]…’ I think this is simply a Biblical-Hebrew style of expression, whereby the past tense is used sometimes to express the future and similarly the word “and” is adjoined to such expressions.)

7) Why does 34:18 repeat “one prince” twice?

8) In discussing the princes bringing their offerings, why refer to some of them as ‘prince’ and not to others? I can understand it not being mentioned for Calev as we know already that he was a great man, and we know that the tribe of Simon lost its prince when he sinned with the Midianite woman. But why not mention that Benjamin’s representative was a prince?…

Also, can we make anything of their names?

9) 35:32 says, regarding one who killed accidentally, “And you shall not take atonement money for one who fled to his city of refuge to return to dwell in the land before the death of the Kohen [Gadol].” In what is it his city, as opposed to ‘a’ city?

ולא תקחו כפר לנוס אל עיר מקלטו לשוב לשבת בארץ עד מות הכהן””

– Does the verse mean we shouldn’t bring the money… to his city of refuge? In this case, we’d be reading the phrase as “And you shall not take atonement money for one who fled[,] to his city of refuge.” But perhaps we can take that money elsewhere, like to the Temple?

– Artscroll translates Rashi’s first comment , “לא יפטר בממון”, as “He shall not be exempt [from the death penalty] through payment of money.” But ‘be exempt’ means that they understand Rashi to be using the passive Nifal verb form, which is difficult since it implies a misspelling on Rashi’s behalf. The third person singular, conjugated in the future of Nifal, takes two Yuds at the start, ייפטר, yet Rashi’s comment has only one.

Perhaps Rashi had another meaning?

There’s a phenomenon in Hebrew of homonymous letters replacing one another, and so perhaps Rashi meant “לא יפתר בממון ” – “he won’t solve [the problem of his killing] with money,” replacing the ט with a ת. But this is also difficult because the verb to solve is in the Paal group of verbs, whereas reading Rashi this way would require the verb to be in the Piel group… or else we’d need to imply that Rashi switched the tet and taf letters, and also used a ‘shortened’ form of the word where the ‘o’ vowel is written with a dot and not a dotted-vav, which would fit the verb with the Paal group.

I find this explanation unpersuasive, however, because in his following comment, Rashi uses the Nifal form explicitly, with proper spelling: אינו נפטר בגלות לתן כופר

– What is the meaning of “before the death of the Kohen”? Can we then take the atonement money? This would be strange since a footnote in Artscroll explains that “one does not receive two punishments for the same sin” – and the accidental killer has already suffered the punishment of exile from his city/community.

Perhaps this means that the money would allow him to return now, until the death of the Kohen, at which point he would finally need to go into exile. The money would be a ransom for his working years, allowing him to make use of his most productive financial years in his community, instead of having to start over from scratch? This reading changes the meaning of the word ,”עד”, which Rashi reads as “before” [the translation given above, per Artscroll] for the Sifrei’s translation as “until.”

– I considered the following reading and associated question, but then rejected them as only plausible based on the English text; the Hebrew syntax would be different if this were the meaning indicated: “- What if he fled to a city of refuge that wasn’t “his” – can you then take atonement money? In this case, we’d be reading the phrase as “And you shall not take atonement money for ‘one-who-fled-to-his-city-of-refuge’. ”

– Rashi’s interpretation of the verse – which rejects the Sifrei’s reading – only makes sense if there’s a reason to pay off the city of refuge to which he flees. Perhaps they are intermediaries and transmit the money to the family of the deceased, who otherwise would kill the killer [the Torah says this isn’t murder and that such killings are exempt from the death penalty (though it’s unclear to me personally if that means there’s no punishment at all]. At that point he can end his exile early? But then why say, before/until the death of the Kohen?

But the best explanations I could find for the difficulties of this verse are as follows:

1) The Sifrei’s interpretation of the verse focuses on rejecting a potential alternative to the death penalty for an intentional killer. The Sifrei thus sees this verse not as a statement of law on a new subject, but continuing the subject discussed in the immediately preceding verse, the wicked killer who killed deliberately. The Sifrei thus interprets as follows: “You shall not take atonement money [instead of the death penalty], to allow the murderer to flee to his city of refuge, to return [from among the condemned] to dwell in the land until the death of the Kohen.” [Citing Artscroll for Sifrei]

2) Rashi rejects the Sifrei, reading it literally without the words Artscroll puts in brackets, because he can’t understand from where the killer is to return as he has not yet fled, at the time where we might take money to allow him to flee. He thus doesn’t see return as a figurative allusion to return from amongst the condemned but rather literal return to his city. Instead, Rashi proposes this interpretation:

“And you shall not take atonement money for one who fled, to his city of refuge, to return to dwell in the land, before the death of the Kohen.” I’ve added in commas around “to his city of refuge” because I think Rashi’s background thoughts are as follows:

3) Maybe the verse means that the killer’s home community shouldn’t support the killer while he is in exile? This would also explain another notable element of the verse, the use of the highly-specific word “Kopher,” ,”כפר”. In this case, the word is spelled without a vav and is thus spelled identically to the word “Kphar,” which means village. So you would interpret the verse as “Don’t take town [read: the financial support of his town/community] to the killer to his city of refuge until the death of the Kohen.” This is based partly on how Artscroll footnotes Rashi, saying that

“With ‘by giving atonement money,’ Rashi indicates that ‘for one who fled’ of the verse refers tot taking money from [italics in original] the one who fled for his benefit. It does not refer to taking money from others for him.”

Therefore we can perceive who these others might be – his family and community.

This would also make sense in the perspective of measure-for-measure punishment, insofar as having killed part of a family and community, the person should themselves be cut off from family and community.

I’d love to hear your comments and feedback upon this!

Posted in Judaism.

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Continuing the Discussion

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