Parashat Mas'ei

Shabbat Rosh Hodesh
Numbers 33:1-36:13
August 2, 2008 / 1 Av 5768

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Abigail Treu, director of Donor Relations and Planned Giving, JTS.  

Golda Meir famously quipped: “Let me tell you the one thing I have against Moses. He took us forty years into the desert in order to bring us to the one place in the Middle East that has no oil!” Well, the folks living atop the Marcellus Shale have the opposite gripe. Underneath this formation, which stretches from the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York through Pennsylvania and Ohio to Virginia, there is oil. And with the price of oil being what it is, the oil companies have new incentive to drill there and have come calling. Which presents the farmers and landowners in this four-state stretch with a dilemma: what is more important, the beauty and health of their land or their economic security?

Of course, this is but the smallest example of a global phenomenon, giving rise to the question:  what responsibilities do we have as Jews to care for the planet? 

The first commandment God gives to humanity is “Be fruitful, and multiply; fill the earth and master it, and rule the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, and all the living things that creep on this earth” (Gen. 1:28). Our moral instincts tell us that this cannot be the whole story. 

One of the seminal texts informing Jewish ecological policy is in the Talmud, BT Brachot 35a:

Rav Judah said in the name of Samuel: To enjoy anything of the world without [reciting] a blessing is like making personal use of things consecrated to heaven, since it says: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”  (Psalm 24:1)

This leads Rabbi Levy to wonder:

Rabbi Levi contrasted two texts. It is written “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1), but it is also written, “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth God has given to the children of men” (Psalm 115:16). There is no contradiction: in the one case it is before a blessing has been said, in the other case it is after.

The earth belongs to God; but God has given it to us. It is a gift. We may use it, but we must treat it as a treasure from a beloved gift giver. From this text is born that trademark Jewish practice: the blessing. We are encouraged to recite one hundred blessings each day, many of which are in appreciation of the earth. Most famous are the blessings over food, but just as “eco-inspired” are blessings to be said upon seeing the ocean, hearing thunder, or spotting the first bloom of trees in spring.

There is in Parashat Mas’ei a blueprint informing Jewish valuing of the earth: the instructions for the Levitical cities to be built in the Holy Land.

The Lord spoke to Moses . . . saying: Instruct the Israelite people to assign, out of holdings apportioned to them, towns for the Levites to dwell in; you shall also assign to the Levites pasture land around their towns. The towns shall be theirs to dwell in, and the pasture shall be for the cattle they own and all their other beasts. The town pasture that you are to assign to the Levites shall extend a thousand cubits outside the town wall all around. You shall measure off two thousand cubits outside the town on the east side, two thousand on the south side, two thousand on the west side, and two thousand on the north side, with the town in the center. That shall be the pasture for the towns.” (Num. 35:1-5)

Because the Levites are sustained primarily by tithes donated to the Temple, they do not need farmland; however, they do need a place to live. As such, they could have been granted a simple urban residence. Instead their right to a dwelling place comes with the mandate, as Rashi put it, for an “empty space all around . . . to be an aesthetic enhancement for the city.” No building, no planting, no sowing: the prototype green belt.

But how much green space is enough? At what point do the scales tip from the right to “master the earth” to the obligation for land conservation? Here we run into trouble, for the text is unclear. Rereading the verses, we see that two measurements are given: one thousand cubits and two thousand cubits. Which one is it?

Nachmanides solves the problem: he realized that the two thousand cubit measure refers to the perimeter of the pasture. The schema would look like this:


Not incidentally, this is the same diagram used to determine the t’chum shabbat, the boundary within which one may walk on Shabbat. The ideal of the green Levitical city is not mere fantasy: it is, as Professor Moshe Greenberg noted, put into action on that one day a week in which we embody our ideals as much as possible. It is as if, lest we forget the Jewish value of land conservation, the Rabbis found a way to keep us drawing this diagram generations after we had any practical need to learn the rules of Levitical cities. Far from a forgotten ideal, the Rabbis enshrine the map of the green belt into the laws governing that most idealistic of Jewish practices, Shabbat.

One of Judaism’s most inspiring features is its idealism; an idealism which we Jews routinely put into action in our daily living. Shabbat: the idea of a universal day of rest for humanity, animal life, and the land. Kashrut, in which eating is elevated from biological fact to spiritual succor. The moral injunctions of the Prophets: claimed by both Christianity and Islam as the bedrock of their own ethical systems. Why not add the Levitical city to the list of ideals that Judaism has lent the world? Why not read this as a reminder of the Jewish commitment to retaining a balance between the commandment to master the earth and the mitzvah of treating the earth as a divine gift? 

As the parashah and the book of Numbers come to a close, the Israelites are gathered, poised to cross the Jordan and begin the next stage of their journey.  The generation that left Egypt was stymied by scary reports; reports of a future that made them doubt their fate and ultimately kept them from reaching the Promised Land. We, their children’s children, must learn from their mistakes. We too are poised on a threshold, contemplating how to react to our own scary reports of an uncertain future. We would do well to take the mantle of tikkun ‘olam onto our own shoulders, so that our children may be blessed to recite one hundred blessings a day, and live in a world in which the lack of oil is a source of celebration, not regret.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.


For more information on Jewish environmentalism, or to find out how to get involved in your own community, please visit:

Hazon: www.hazon.org

Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life:  www.coejl.org

The United Synagogue’s environmental information page, included under the heading “social action”: http://www.uscj.org