These parshiot complete the book of Bamidbar. Israel fight a war with Midian. The tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe are given the Trans-Jordan territories in exchange for fighting to take the land of Canaan. The journeys of the people during forty years in the desert are summarised, and the boundaries of Canaan are defined. The laws regarding the inadvertent murderer and the cities of refuge are described.

Another Voice

Utopia vs. Grim Reality - Jacqueline Nicholls

Jacqueline Nicholls is an artist and Jewish educator. She teaches on the LSJS Tanach programme and has exhibited her artwork through YaD Arts UK.

So ends Bamidbar. The Children of Israel are standing poised on the border of the Land of Israel. This is it. Their 40 year long meandering is over and they prepare to face their future. And to look forward, they first need to look back.

The sedra of Ma'asei begins with a summary of their journeys detailing where they've been and camped with a few narrative highlights. The events that are deemed noteworthy in this strange travelogue are: leaving Egypt while the Egyptians are burying their dead; complaining of lack of water; and Aaron's death. These aren't the obvious highlights of their 40 years. There is no mention of the miracles - the manna, the guiding pillars of fire and smoke, or even revelation at Sinai.

Furthermore, at the end of the sedra, when the text looks forward into the future settling of the land, it speaks of establishing cities of refuge. This is not the usual message that leaving Egypt is to be a people, free to serve God in the Temple (e.g. the Pesach song dayainu). Instead of a poetic description of our covenantal relationship with God and providing a physical dwelling place, the text relates what to do when somebody accidentally kills another and the victim's relatives are out for revenge.

But who is hearing this strange travelogue and town planning regulations? This generation is not all the generation who left Egypt as slaves. The slave men died due to the sin of the spies. This generation are the men who were born in the wilderness, who never directly experienced slavery but know all about the potential failures of human society. (And there must have been a lot of old women around, but that's a different story…) This generation have lived with the consequences of complaining, muttering and rebellion. They saw what happened to Korach and his followers and have had their fair share of uncertainty about their final destination.

To this generation, and to us, the readers of the last sedra of Bamidbar, there is no great vision of an ideal society. The land here is not flowing with milk and honey but potentially could be flowing with innocent blood. Because when people live together it isn't always perfect. While we are successful, other people could get hurt and need to bury their dead, just like the Egyptians. Not everyone will be satisfied and there will be complaints. Recalling Aaron's death is a reminder of failures of leadership. His death can be interpreted as a delayed punishment for his role in the golden calf, and his role in Moshe hitting the rock.

It is unrealistic to try to build a perfect society and ignore human nature. Therefore, as a priority of the vision of what life will be like on the other side of the border, setting out how to deal justly with accidents and strife in society is fundamental. And it is this concern for how we are to live with each other, with all our imperfections. That is the realistic foundation for us to have a covenantal relationship with God.

Another Voice - Andrew Levy

The Jewish division of the Torah into parshiot highlights the beginning of each parshah by the use of the first important word in that section to give the parshah its name. However, as we reach the end of one of the five books of the Torah, it is fascinating to note what happens if you analyse the final word of each of those five books.

The last word of each of the five books is as follows:

Genesis – Bemitzrayim (in Egypt)
Exodus – Masseihem (their journeys)
Leviticus – Sinai
Numbers – Yericho (Jericho)
Deuteronomy – Yisrael

Here we have the story of the people of Israel in a nutshell. Formed, as a people, in Egypt, their journeys take them via Sinai and Jericho finally home to Israel.