Jewish Journal

Rabbi Finley’s Reflections on Torah Portion Mattot-Massei – “Teaching in Exile”

Reflections on Torah Portion Mattot-Masei – Rabbi Mordecai Finley

Teaching in Exile

This week’s Torah portion is a double portion. The reason we have double portions is so that during a Jewish leap year, when there are 13 months instead of 12, we can “unpack” the double portions so that each Shabbat in a leap year has its own Torah portion. This double portion end the book of Numbers (Ba-Midbar – “in the desert” in Hebew).

Many of themes in these two Torah portions have to do with final matters before the Israelites enter the Land of Canaan. One of these matters is the concept of the “cities of refuge” that will be established in the land. A person who has killed someone accidentally but negligently is still subject to the family of the deceased sending out an “avenger” (go’el ha-dahm). The perpetrator can flee to a city of refuge and have his case adjudicated. If the killing were deemed completely accidental, the person is free to go. If it turns out that the person committed willful murder, the court hands him over to the blood avenger, who slays the perpetrator.  If the killing was negligent, but not intentional, the person can stay safely in the city of refuge until the current High Priest dies. At that time, the Blood Avenger is relieved of his duty to avenge the blood of his kinfolk, and the perpetrator can leave the city safely.
This law clearly seems to prevent something rampant in pre-modern times, and still in force in many places today: the vendetta. If a person from one tribe, group, gang, mob, etc., kills a person from another group, the offended group feels it has the right and duty to kill any member of group of the perpetrator. Destructive feuds follow. This law limits the avenger to only the perpetrator, and introduced the intervention of a court to adjudicate the case. The avenger is, of course, an executioner, but only of someone who has committed intentional murder.

The Talmud takes this wise and fairly straightforward law into unforeseen territory. The Bible says in Deuteronomy 4:42, where the matter is reviewed, that that person guilty of negligent homicide can flee to a city of refuge “and live”.  The Talmudic rabbis ask what it means “to live.”  Obviously, he goes there to live and not to die; that is the purpose of the law. “To live” must mean something else. The rabbis decide (as recorded in Tractate Makkot 10a) that a person cannot live without the study of Torah, so if a person is exiled to the city of refuge, his teacher must go with him. And where the teacher goes, the whole yeshivah goes.

This reading of the text is, of course, contested, and there is no case recorded case of rabbi and the yeshivah following a negligent killer into the exile of a city of refuge. They are probably referring to something deeper. What is the deeper thing here? Something that every real parent, teacher, healer, therapist, life coach, mentor, true friend, etc. knows:  you can only guide if you are willing to go into the exile experienced by the person for whom you are caring. The empathy and insight required for true guidance requires that the guide somehow can peer into the soul of the student not be defended from what one sees there.

One of the finest treatments of this theme, in my opinion, is the film “Good Will Hunting”.  As the Robin Williams character enters into the soul-realm of the Matt Damon character, we see both are transformed. Neither is unscathed. The scathing is necessary, like lancing an infection to release the pressure and drain the abscess. The idea of the rabbi accompanying the sufferer into exile is a common theme in Chasidic literature.

The experience of exile is core to the human condition, just as is the presence of those who can lead us out. Sometimes a person, sometimes a film, a book, a song, a poem. Sometimes the Torah.