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Parashat Mattot-Masei (Numbers 30:32-36:13)

“This shall be for you a decree of justice for your generations,
in all your dwelling places.” (Numbers 35: 29)

August 25, 2016 is the centennial anniversary of the Organic Act, creating the National Park Service. National parks, of course, predate the act (Yellowstone National Park is the oldest, dating to 1872). The National Park system comprises 412 areas covering more than 84 million acres. A hundred year anniversary is noteworthy (as we know at JCC Association!), but Parashat Matot-Masei beats the Organic Act by two thousand yeard in recognizing the importance of open wilderness.

Unlike the other tribes, Levi is not assigned a portion in the Land of Canaan: the Levites are designated to serve God and are spread out among all the tribes. So God instructs Moses to set aside cities for the Levites and, “…migrash, an open space, for the cities around them shall you give to the Levites.” (Num. 35: 2) Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator) interprets: the open space is to be left undeveloped, for the beautification of the town.

The restorative, spiritual power of nature is a timeless idea. It is why summer camp is invented in the 1880s, and why universities are located far from the city, (at least initially). Matot-Masei’s command is particularly striking, given the proximity and abundance of wilderness in the Biblical era; even city dwellers are never more than a short walk from nature.

God’s very next command is to create cities of refuge, where accidental murderers can find safe haven from those seeking revenge (Num. 35:6-28). The juxtaposition of Levitical cities with cities of refuge reinforces the notion of wilderness as a haven: the city protects your “self” but the wilderness preserves your soul.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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