Torah scroll
Torah scroll iStock

For the last three-and-a-half months, ever since Shabbat 22nd Nissan (23rd April), Israel and the Diaspora have been a week out of step in the Torah-reading.

The reason is simple:

Pesach began on Shabbat 15th Nissan (16th April). A week later, on the following Shabbat, the Festival had already finished in Israel, so communities continued with the weekly Torah-reading and read Parashat Acharei Mot.

However on the same Shabbat, the Diaspora was keeping the extra Festival day, so they read the Torah-reading for the Eighth Day of Pesach, Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17, and only continued with Parashat Acharei Mot a week later on Shabbat 29th Nissan (30th April), when Israeli communities were already reading Parashat Kedoshim.

And so we continued, Israel one week ahead of the Diaspora. This Shabbat, the diaspora will catch up with Israel: in Israel we will read Parashat Mas’ey, and communities in the Diaspora will read the double-parashah Mattot-Mas’ey.

This brings Jews from all over the world back together. If the disasters of the Three Weeks were caused by internal dissent and conflict among Jews, then it is of course supremely appropriate that it is precisely during the Three Weeks that we meet up again and become re-united in our Torah-readings.

Parashat Mas’ey, whether read alone or combined with Parashat Mattot-Mas’ey to form a double parashah, is invariably read on the second Shabbat of the Three Weeks, the annual period of mourning for our destroyed Holy Temple, our plundered Land of Israel, our lost national sovereign independence.

This means that ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), we have invariably concluded reading the Book of Numbers on the second Shabbat of the Three Weeks, which is the first Shabbat of the None Days.

The Book of Numbers opens two weeks shy of two years after the Exodus, with the Children of Israel still encamped at Mount Sinai, and concludes thirty-eight years later, with the Children of Israel poised on the very threshold of the Land of Israel.

Thus this is the Book which bridges between the generation which left Egypt and which perished in the desert, and the generation which grew up in the Desert and entered their Land to live there as a free and independent nation.

The Midrash notes that the word אוֹר, “light”, appears five times in the first paragraph of the Torah (the first day of creation), corresponding to the five Books of the Torah. The fourth of these is, “And G-d divided between the light and the darkness” (Genesis 1:4), “corresponding to the Book of Numbers which separates between those who left Egypt and those who came to Israel” (Bereishit Rabbah 3:5).

This Book begins with the Mitzvot concerning the Tabernacle in the wilderness, which served the Jewish nation for almost half-a-millennium, until King Solomon would build the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. And it concludes with the division of the Land of Israel among the Tribes and the borders of the Land.

Parashat Mas’ey opens with a précis of the last forty years of our desert wanderings:

These are מַסְעֵי (mas’ey) the journeys of the Children of Israel who went out from the land of Egypt in their legions, led by Moshe and Aaron – and Moshe wrote their outgoings according to their journeys as commanded by Hashem – and these are their journeys according to their outgoings:

They journeyed from Rameses on the fifteenth of the first month…while Egypt were burying those firstborns of theirs whom Hashem had struck…and the Children of Israel journeyed from Rameses and they encamped as Succot; and they journeyed from Succot and they encamped in Eitam…” (Numbers 33:1-5).

Those first 49 verses of our parashah list the 42 desert journeys from Egypt to the Plains of Moab on the east bank of the River Jordan.

Later on (Chapter 35), our Parashah will continue with the apportioning of the Land of Israel, and specifically the Levite Cities.

This is a continuation of the census of the Tribes in Parashat Pinchas, when G-d decreed that “you shall apportion the Land among these as an inheritance according to the number of names – to the more numerous you will greater inheritance, and to the fewer you will give a smaller inheritance” (26:53-54). The bigger the Tribe, the more land it inherited.

The Tribe of Levi, however, had a separate census (26:57-62), because this Tribe was given no inheritance in the Land of Israel. Instead, they were to be scattered throughout the Land: as the spiritual leaders and teachers of the nation, they had to be dispersed among all the other Tribes so that they could infuse them all with their inspiration.

Therefore, “there will be no portion and inheritance with Israel for the Kohanim [Priests] and Levites – the entire Tribe of Levi; they will eat Hashem’s fire-offerings and His inheritance, but he will have no inheritance among his brethren; Hashem is his inheritance” (Deuteronomy 18:1-5).

And therefore, G-d gave the Levites 48 cities: 42 for them to live in, and six cities of refuge for killers to flee to, to escape vigilante justice.

Very briefly: Anyone who had killed someone could flee to the nearest city of refuge, where he would remain until he was brought to trial. The Sanhedrin which tried him could exonerate him entirely, in which case he is free to return home; or it could find him guilty of murder, in which case he is executed; or it could find him guilty of unintentional manslaughter, in which case he returns to the city of refuge, where he remains until the death of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), when he can return home.

The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Efrayim, Luntchitz, Lvov [Lemberg], and Prague, 1550-1619) comments:

“‘Forty-two [Levite] cities’, corresponding to the forty-two stations at which Israel encamped, in all of which they were as temporary dwellers/strangers [גֵּרִים]; similarly forty-two cities were given to the Levites, who did not have any portion in the Land. And the cities of refuge were of the Levite cities, because the [killer who] fled to the city of refuge was there as a temporary dweller/stranger [גֵּר]… Therefore He commanded that the cities of refuge be of the Levite cities, because the Levites, too, were as temporary dwellers/strangers [גֵּרִים] in the Land” (Commentary to Numbers 35:6).

Jewish history, the geography of our desert journeys, was already a paradigm of the way that the Land of Israel was to be governed.

In the same way, the six cities of refuge correspond to the Torah-scroll. There were three cities of refuge on each side of the River Jordan: west of the Jordan were Kedesh in the north, though several miles before the northern border; Shechem near the centre; and Hebron in the south, but again several miles from the southern border.

Roughly parallel to them east of the Jordan were Golan in the Bashan opposite Kedesh; Ramot Gil’ad, opposite Shechem; and Betzer opposite Hebron (Joshua 20:7-8).

The Land of Israel represents the Sefer Torah: the two sections of the land – east and west – are likened to two sheets of parchment, and the River Jordan is the seam. The Sefer Torah typically has a minimum of three stitches joining two sheets of parchment together: one near the top, though not at the very top; one in the centre; and one near the bottom, though not at the very bottom (Rambam, Laws of Megillah and Hanukkah 2:1; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 278:1).

And the three cities of refuge on either side of the Rover Jordan correspond directly to these three stitches (Tosafot on Megillah 19a s.v. ובלבד שיהו משולשין and Makkot 9b, s.v. משולשות), inexorably linking the two halves of the Land of Israel.

We return to the forty-two stations of our desert wandering: we have seen that they correspond to the forty-two Levite cities, but they also have another significance: the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michael Weiser, Volhynia, Poland, and Romania, 1809-1879) records that these 42 stages of the desert journey correspond to the mystical 42-letter Name of G-d (Commentary to Numbers 33:5).

This is the Divine mystical Name whose 42 letters are the initial letters of the 42 words of the Kabbalistic prayer אָנָּא בְּכֹחַ גְּדֻלַּת יְמִינְךָ תַּתִּיר צְרוּרָה...: “Please – by the power of the greatness of Your right hand, set free the captive nation; accept the joyful prayer-song of Your nation – strengthen us, purify us, O Awesome One!...”

This prayer is ascribed to the Tanna Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakanah.

Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakanah was a disciple of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai (Bava Batra 10b), meaning he flourished in the late 1st century of the Common Era. He would have lived through the destruction of the Second Holy Temple, the tragedy and disaster which we commemorate at this time of the year.

His mentor, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, was among the greatest of Masters: he was the only one to merit the title “Rabban” without being of the family of the Nesi’im, the dynasty which began with Hillel; and Hillel, his mentor, said that “he was the father of wisdom and the father of generations” (Yerushalmi Nedarim 5:6, Avot de-Rabbi Natan [B] 28).

And Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakanah was the primary mentor of Rabbi Yishma’el – a reciprocal relationship, as Rabbi Yishma’el was Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakanah’s foremost disciple (Shevuot 26a).

And Rabbi Yishma’el was the closest friend and study-partner of Rabbi Akiva (Yoma 75b), the spiritual leader of the Bar Kochba Revolt, the last and greatest desperate attempt to expel the Roman occupiers from Israel, to restore Jewish sovereign national independence to the Land, and to bring the Redemption.

The last desperate, heroic stand of the Bar Kochba Revolt was in the mighty city of Beitar in the Judean hills, just 17 km (11 miles) southwest of Jerusalem, when the Romans captured and destroyed the city on the 9th of Av in 135 C.E. (Ta’anit 4:6).

This is another of the disasters which we commemorate at this season of the year.

We return to the forty-two journeys with which our Parashah opens:

That the forty-two journeys through the desert parallel the forty-two letters of G-d’s mystical Name has practical halakhic ramifications: Most printed Chumashim show the first reading (Kohen) as covering the first 10 verses (Numbers 33:1-10), the first 6 journeys, and the second reading (Levi) as covering the next 39 verses (33:11-49), the rest of the journeys.

However there is a widespread custom to read all 42 journeys, the whole of Chapter 33, as one single reading and not to split it up, because these 42 stages correspond to the 42-letter Name of G-d, and it is not appropriate to split up the Name of G-d (Mishnah Berurah 428:21, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 78:4, et al.).

Jewish history, the geography of the Land of Israel, the design of the Sefer Torah, the Nation of Israel – all are united, all coalesce into a single inseparable unit.


Now that we will read the same Torah portion the world over, the third of the Three Weeks and the last of the None Days, this unity is maybe more pronounced than ever.

Because it is this unity, when actualised, that will bring Jewish history and Jewish destiny to its glorious pinnacle of Redemption, when the ninth of Av will be transformed from a day of fasting and mourning into a day of celebration and Redemption.