Matot Masei 5781
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
This week, we read two connected parashot – Matot and Masei. These parashot complete the book of Numbers, the fourth of the five books of the Torah that describes the journeys and events that the children of Israel experienced during their forty years in the desert. Toward the end of the book of Numbers, we read a commandment about the manner in which the Jewish nation should settle the Land of Israel after they enter and conquer it. It would be expected that the Land of Israel would be divided among all the tribes, based on the principle, “To the large [tribe] you shall give a larger inheritance and to a smaller tribe you shall give a smaller inheritance” (Numbers 26, 54). But that was not what was done! In actuality, an entire tribe – the tribe of Levi – was not slated to receive a designated piece of land in the Land of Israel. Instead, the rest of the tribes were commanded to set aside forty-eight cities from their inheritance for the tribe of Levi:
All the cities you shall give to the Levites shall number forty-eight cities, them with their open spaces. And as for the cities that you shall give from the possession of the children of Israel, you shall take more from a larger [holding] and you shall take less from a smaller one. Each one, according to the inheritance allotted to him, shall give of his cities to the Levites.
(Numbers 35, 7-8)
This commandment, that the Levites will not receive a portion of land as inheritance in the Land of Israel, is repeated again in the book of Deuteronomy:
The Levitic kohanim, the entire tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel; the Lord’s fire offerings and His inheritance they shall eat. But he shall have no inheritance among his brothers; the Lord is his inheritance, as He spoke to him.
(Deuteronomy 18, 1-2)
In addition to the cities that the Levites got from the children of Israel, they also got “ma’asrot”: tithes, a tenth of the annual harvest was given to the Levites as compensation for their work in the Temple. The kohanim (priests) from among the Levites received additional gifts from the nation – a total of twenty-four gifts – for example, “teruma” from the harvest, the firstborn of cattle, “hafrashat challah,” setting aside dough, as well as part of the sacrifices offered in the Tabernacle and the Temple.
With these commandments, the Torah describes the way the kohanim and Levites should live. Firstly, they do not receive a designated plot of land or a specific place to live, as the tribes got. Rather, they were dispersed among autonomous cities within other tribes. It should be noted that in the ancient world, land was the main source of sustenance through agriculture and raising cattle. The fact that the tribe of Levi did not get land of their own meant that their livelihood was restricted. Instead, the Levites and kohanim got tithes and various other gifts from the nation for their livelihood.
We find the following in Sefer HaChinuch (13th century, anonymous author), a book that describes each of the Torah’s 613 commandments and gives detailed explanations for each:
It is from the roots of the commandment [that it is] so that all of the involvement of this tribe be in the service of G-d, blessed be He, and that they need not work the land. And the rest of the tribes give them a portion from all that they have without [the Levites] toiling for it at all.
(Sefer HaChinuch commandment 604(
G-d wanted there to be one sector in the nation dedicated not only to servicing the Lord in the Temple, but also to spirituality, intellectualism, and the study of laws of the Torah and justice. To this end, these people had to minimize their time spent working the land and dealing with material matters leaving them time to delve into spirituality.
However, if the tribe of Levi would only deal with godly matters among themselves, they would miss the point of influencing the entire nation. For this reason, the Torah commands that each tribe set aside cities for the kohanim and the Levites. By being integrated within the tribes, they would be able to teach the proper way to live and would have a spiritual impact on everyone, near and far.
This need to have a segment of the nation dedicated to serving G-d is relevant nowadays as well. We can learn from the model the Torah proposes that there is a need even today to nurture people who dedicate their lives to G-d and to spirituality, and that we should support them in this path in the hopes that people like the ideal kohen described by the prophet Malachi rise from among us:
For a priest’s lips shall guard knowledge, and teaching should be sought from his mouth, for he is a messenger of the Lord of Hosts.
(Malachi 2, 7)