Matot – Mas’e 5775: Town and Country
“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”
— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
I’m a person who loves the city. On almost any occasion I would choose a day in the city over one in the country. It isn’t that I don’t like the beauty of nature, or appreciate being away from the hustle and bustle of town, but I feel most at home in an urban environment. For some, it is quite the opposite. City life is tolerated, rather than sought after. Some of us feel most alive when we are in nature’s landscape. Which is better? That, of course, entirely depends on one’s preference. Yet, in our extra-long reading this week there is one line that weighs in on the issue.
During the years that we were a sovereign people in our land, the majority of the population made their homes in the countryside. Farming was the predominant occupation and cities were only visited periodically. Perhaps one travelled to the city in order to sell the produce that was yielded by their fields, or to carry out some other business. There were, however, specific times when a visit to the city was required either by law or necessity.
This week, though, there is a specific command to provide cities for the scholars of the people — the tribe of Levi. (35:1). They were to be provided with an income in the form of tithes, and cities were to be built for them within the various territories of the other tribes, so that they could be free to engage in the service of G-d. This service included the roles of custodians and treasurers of our national wisdom and thought. The Leviyim lived in cities because it is within cities that culture finds its repository. A city is the treasury of human achievement. It is for this reason that we find cities are used to rehabilitate those who have lost their way on the Land (35:9). It is from the reservoir of strength, knowledge and identity found in a city that one has the chance to reconnect to meaning and value.
Still, city dwelling has its own dangers. In a city one can lose a connection to the natural world and lose sense of our vital relationship to the earth, its produce and the life that we live upon it. There is a need for city dwellers to see where their nourishment grows and from where their clothing is gleaned, and to be conscious of the delicate symbiosis that we enjoy with nature.
We find that Torah treats human involvement in town and country with high importance for the landscaping of the cities of the Leviyim is explicitly mandated: Meadows around the towns, give to the Leviyim (35:2). Here G-d requires that the cities be encircled with natural landscapes (Rashi, ibid). Ralbag (Gersonides, b.1288) highlights that the Leviyim could accomplish their jobs in study halls and courtrooms, libraries and schools, but spending too much time in such structures tends to create a mind that mimics the nature of their confines. G-d wanted the pure beauty and reality of nature to energise the experience of the library scholar and prevent the emergence of the strictly book-bound intellectual. They were to be saved from coming to believe that the city is autonomous and alive on its own.
The world’s natural beauty and vitality must be linked to man’s developments. To lose touch with one or the other leaves us lopsided and lacking. From one verse in this week’s reading which speaks of the divinely mandated layout of a city in Israel, we learn of the value of both city and country in the human experience. Cities are among the most majestic and beautiful creations of humanity and in housing our wisdom, art and technology they inspire is to dream and grow. The country ensures that in our growth we do not lose our footing upon the earth. It teaches us that we are a fragile species and that we are but one expression of the astounding earthly phenomenon that we call ‘Life’.
Law and Lore
About the Prayers
Blessings of Shema – ‘Yotser Ohr’
One is not permitted to speak from ‘Barekhu’ until after completing the ‘Amida’. It is permitted, however, to answer amen to blessings and kadish that one might hear.
There are two long blessings that are said prior to Shema Yisrael in praise of G-d, during the morning prayers. The first is called Yotser Ohr – The Creator of Light. The theme of the blessing speaks of G-d’s creation of light and the luminescent celestial bodies. We mention that G-d created both light and darkness in this blessing to affirm that there is only one creator and both light and darkness are under His dominion. It speaks in general of the creation of the universe and that it all runs on G-d’s command in order to affirm that G-d is involved with the world and did not leave it to run purely by randomness. A portion focuses on the ministering angels and their recognition of G-d.
On Shabbat the blessing is expanded with a special section, La’El Asher Shabat – To the G-d Who Rested, this portion speaks of Shabbat and that G-d refrained from further creation, thus establishing Shabbat, a day of rest from creative production.
There are arguments among the Hakhamim as to whether one may interrupt these blessings with poems and songs for special occasions. For example, the poem Mi Kamokha by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi (b.1075) was written originally to be said on Shabbat Zakhor prior to Purim, during the blessing of Yotser Ohr just after the words Adonai mi kamokha. Some Hakhamim forbid such interruptions claiming that it veers from the phraseology coined by the rabbinic authors. Others, however, maintain that great scholars penned the poems and the custom to say them in such instances should not be changed.
The custom of the S&P is to say the poems within the blessings as they were originally intended by the authors, relying on the rabbinic authorities who permit it. The Oriental Sepharadim rule according to Rambam and Shulhan Arukh and say these poems elsewhere in the services.
 Maimonides, Responsa, 32; Shulhan Arukh 67.
 R. Shelomo ben Aderet (Rashba), Responsa, I, 461; R. David ben Zimra (Radbaz), III:532; R. Moshe Isserlash (Rama), Glosses to Shulhan Arukh, 67.
 Cf. Keter Shem Tob, I, p. 222
84 Laws of vows (30:2-17)
85a War against the Midianites:
1000 from each of twelve tribes, led by Pinchas.
Bilaam killed, spoil taken (31:1-12)
85b Moshe is angry about the spoil and instructs a
purification process (31:13-20)
85c Purification of the fighters (31:21-24)
85d Apportionment of the spoil (31:25-54)
86a The tribes of Reuven and Gad introduce their plea
86b They request to settle where they are, but Moshe
responds very forcefully (32:5-15)
86c The two tribes compromise and agree to inherit
only after the People are safely settled (32:16-19)
87 Both sides confirm the details of the agreement and
Moshe gives them their inheritance (32:20-42)
88a List of journeys from Egypt to Hor haHar (33:1-39)
88b List of journeys from Hor haHar to plains of Moav
88c Commands about settling Cana’an and
dispossessing its inhabitants (33:50-56)
89 God identifies the southern, western, northern and
eastern borders of the Land (34:1-15)
90 A prince from each of ten tribes (not Reuven, Gad
or Levi) is chosen to divide the Land (34:16-29)
91 48 cities, with accompanying lands, to be assigned
for tribe of Levi’im, 6 of which are Refuge cities
92 Description of the Cities of Refuge for those
convicted of unintentional manslaughter (35:9-34)
93 Laws of Heiresses based on Machla, Tirza, Chogla,
Milca and Noa (36:1-13)
Responding Menashe tribes’ question, Zelafchad’s
daughter married within the tribe to preserve allotments.