Parshas Matos Masei 5779

This week we read the double parsha of Matos-Masei. Among the many topics discussed, we talk about the two and a half shevatim of Reuven, Gad, and half of Shevet Menashe choosing to stay on one side of the Yarden in Matos, and we also talk about the Arei Miklat, the cities of refuge, in Masei. There's a very interesting connection between the two topics, and I'd like to discuss it and what it can teach us.

(ה) וַיֹּאמְר֗וּ אִם־מָצָ֤אנוּ חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ יֻתַּ֞ן אֶת־הָאָ֧רֶץ הַזֹּ֛את לַעֲבָדֶ֖יךָ לַאֲחֻזָּ֑ה אַל־תַּעֲבִרֵ֖נוּ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּֽן׃
(5) It would be a favor to us,” they continued, “if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.”

In this passuk, the two and a half shevatim ask Moshe if they can remain on this side of the Jordan river while the rest of the nation lives on the other side. They promise that they will fight in all of the wars involved in conquering the rest of the land, and Moshe grants their request.

(ו) וְאֵ֣ת הֶֽעָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר תִּתְּנוּ֙ לַלְוִיִּ֔ם אֵ֚ת שֵׁשׁ־עָרֵ֣י הַמִּקְלָ֔ט אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּתְּנ֔וּ לָנֻ֥ס שָׁ֖מָּה הָרֹצֵ֑חַ וַעֲלֵיהֶ֣ם תִּתְּנ֔וּ אַרְבָּעִ֥ים וּשְׁתַּ֖יִם עִֽיר׃
(6) The towns that you assign to the Levites shall comprise the six cities of refuge that you are to designate for a manslayer to flee to, to which you shall add forty-two towns.

In this passuk, Bnai Yisrael are commanded to build 6 cities of refuge for someone who kills someone else accidentally. What's interesting, though, is that the 6 cities are going to be divided between the two sides of the Jordan river, with 3 on each side. If 9.5 shevatim live on one side, and only 2.5 on the other, then why should the cities of refuge be divided evenly? What is it about the 2.5 shevatim that there are so many more accidental murders?

I saw an idea from Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky that intrigued me. He says that the reason there are more accidental murders is because Reuven, Gad, and half of Shevet Menashe were further away from the Bais Hamikdash, which embodies the sanctity of life. The mizbeach in the Bais Hamikdash was built without iron tools, because weapons of war are made with iron. If a person sins, then strictly speaking he should lose his life, but in the Bais Hamikdash he is given a second chance, because his life means so much. Because these shevatim lived so far geographically from the Bais Hamikdash, they felt emotionally distanced as well. Therefore, the effect that the Bais Hamikdash and the kohanim had on the people, the influence they had over them to show them the sanctity of life, was diminished for these shevatim, ultimately leading to a carelessness that led to more accidental murders.

To me, this idea is fascinating and brings another saying of Chazal to mind.

אמר אביי אוי לרשע אוי לשכינו טוב לצדיק טוב לשכינו שנאמר (ישעיהו ג, י) אמרו צדיק כי טוב כי פרי מעלליהם יאכלו

Abaye said: Woe unto the wicked, woe unto his neighbor. To conclude the tractate on a positive note, the Gemara says: Good for the righteous, good for his neighbor, as it is stated: “Say you of the righteous that it shall be good for him, for they shall eat the fruit of their doings” (Isaiah 3:10); the neighbors of a righteous man who witness and acknowledge the good that befalls him will benefit from their proximity to him.

As we see in the Gemara, who we surround ourselves with matters. When we surround ourselves with wicked people, we are, at times unknowingly, influenced tremendously by them and begin to fall as well. On the contrary, when we surround ourselves with supportive friends, with people who want to grow and be better, we begin to grow as well. The people we are with determine the atmosphere of our environment, and that can either push us to improve or become an obstacle. When the Shevatim decided to remain on the other side of the Yarden, they separated themselves from the rest of Klal Yisrael. They were surrounded by the nations of the world, and the incredible atmosphere of Eretz Yisrael and the Bais Hamikdash couldn't reach them as strongly, leading to the need for three of the Arei Miklat.

Parshas Matos Masei teaches us to be careful who our friends are. Are they pushing us to grow in our yiddishkeit? Are they helping us become better people in our relationships with Hashem and with other people? Or are they pulling us down, and helping us commit "murder", even accidentally? Perhaps we are the ones pulling others down- how are we influencing those around us?

If we can take the message of the shevatim and arei miklat to heart, b'ezras hashem we can grow more and more, unhindered by others.