Parashah Massey – Journeys and Cities of Refuge – 3rd August 2019, Leslie Wheeler

The two aspects of Parashah Massey I want to discuss with you today are the 42  journeys and encampments and the cities of refuge. The journeys and encampment are more readily appreciated if we first consider the full magnitude of the Exodus.

Most of us will have seen the 1956 epic film, ‘The Ten Commandments’ starring Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Bryner as Pharaoh. That moving scene where Charlton Heston is stood facing the sea, staff in hand and declares “Behold his mighty hand.” The sea then parts and the fleeing Israelites then make their escape from Egyptian army. The movie was filmed on location in Egypt, featuring the principle cast together with at least 14,000 extras and an estimated 15,000 animals. The film was produced, directed and narrated by Cecil B. DeMille and the production cost was $13.5 million.

So how does this epic film compare to what we read in the Torah? The Book of Exodus informs us that Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for 430 years and during this time they had grown into a mighty nation. Exodus 1:7 “And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceedingly mighty.” In Exodus 12:37 were we read that 600,000 men on foot left Egypt.Let’s assume that each of the 600,000 men was married, with a wife and an average of 5 children. This would bring the population of the Israelites escaping Egypt to in excess of 3 million people. The Exodus was enormous! Twenty times the number of extras we saw in the ‘The Ten Commandments’ film. To provide us some idea of just how enormous the Exodus was, I found this interesting data at If we were to gathered together the total populations of UK Cities: Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Manchester and Liverpool, we arrive at a figure of around 3 million people.

The 42 Encampments
Parashah Massey records the names and locations of Israelite camps and journeys from the Exodus through forty years in the desert to the plains of Moab across the Jordan River. Numbers chapter 33 does not make very compelling reading. It consist mainly of a long list of largely uneventful encampments where the Israelite nation stayed during their 40 years of wandering. Not only does it appear dull and monotonous, it even mentioned each destination twice! One of the most influential Jewish commentators, Rashi, was also baffled by this long list of undistinguished places and questioned why so much space in the Torah is taken up by this obscure list of place names?

So what was the purpose for Moses chronicling in such a precise fashion, the entire Israelite desert itinerary of 42 encampment? Rashi adds a beautiful explanation from the Midrash Tanchuma, which describes this list of encampments as being similar to what people do after a vacation, or an eventful trip, it is a reminiscence. God, by having Moses record all the stops made along the way, is saying to the Jewish people, “We’ve taken a long journey together, a journey that was necessary to really get you out of Egypt, to make you better, cure you of your slave mentality, and make you the people you had to become. Do you remember what happened here? And what you experienced there? What did we do in this place?”  It’s like a travelogue, an expression of the love God feels for his people, and an appreciation of where they’ve ended up at the end of a long, dynamic, transformational  journey.

Most of us today perform daily repetitive functions like travelling to work in our cars. It’s during these routine journeys that we find ourselves oblivious to our surroundings. We travel along the same roads, pass through the same junctions and traffic lights, with our minds completely focused on, listening to our favourite Radio station, or thinking about how we might resolve that problem we had left at work the previous day. From the time we leave our homes until we reach our destination, the journey in between is completely lost to us, that is until something out of the ordinary happens, for example, our car breaks down. Wherever an incident like this occurs, we always remember it and the location where it happened. The lay-by where we parked our car to await the arrival of the breakdown recovery service. The time the breakdown recovery van arrived. The hearing of advice from the service engineer suggesting that we should give serious consideration to purchasing a new car.

With his long list of place names, Moses is showing us that life is not simply a final destination, but a succession of destinations each bringing us toward a progressive fulfilment of our destiny. In other words, life is not only about the end goal; rather, it is more about the journey that takes place along the way.

Cities of Refuge
The tribes of Israel were commanded to assign special cities and lands to the Levites and to choose six cities where one person who unintentionally murders another may flee, finding safety and a fair trial. In this Parashah we are informed of a revolutionary approach to providing justice for those who have unintentionally murdered another person. It suggests that in such accidents, guilty parties may escape the revenge of relatives by going immediately to one of six cities of refuge. Within these cities of refuge, those who have committed involuntary manslaughter are to find safety and justice from those seeking to avenge the death of their loved ones.

The cities of refuge were located, three in the Land of Israel (Hebron, Shechem, and Kedesh) and three east of the Jordan River (Bezer, Ramoth, and Golan). They were strategically chosen so that anyone living in Israel, including strangers, could flee to them within a day or less. The roads leading to them were marked by sign-posts at the crossroads, with the inscription “Miklat” (Refuge); the roads were broad smooth and level, in order that the fugitive would not be hindered. A city of refuge guaranteed the safety of those seeking asylum against being killed in retaliation by the “avenger of blood.” This “avenger of blood” was usually the nearest kin of the person who was murdered. It was considered their duty to revenge the death of their family member. If however the “avenger of blood” killed the fugitive whilst he was within the city of refuge, the “avenger of blood” would be charged with premeditated murder and sentenced to death.

Upon entering one of the cities of refuge, a person had to explain to the elders, what had happened and why he was seeking refuge. The individual was then given a place to stay until a trial could be conducted. At the trial, the elders would judge the individual to see if he was guilty of premeditated murder or unintentional manslaughter. If the individual was found guilty of premeditated murder he would be taken outside the city and turned over to the “avenger of blood” who would then carry out the death penalty. If however they were found guilty of unintentional murder, they were allowed to reside inside the city of refuge rent and tax free during the life of the High Priest.

The Mishna (Makkot 11a) notes that the mother of the High Priest would bring food and clothing to the accidental murderers/refugees. The Mishna explains that the High Priest’s mother would distribute care packages so that the refugees would not pray for the death of her son. On the death of the hight priest the asylum seekers would be set free to return to their families without fear of harm from the avenging family.

Finally, I would like to read you a legend about a certain Rabbi who was constantly tormented by the prime minister of a despot nation. “All right, Rabbi,” taunted the prime minister, “you seem to have the answer to everything. Since you are so smart,” he smirked, “tell me, dear Rabbi, when will you die?” The Rabbi knew he was in a very precarious situation. If he were to identify a date in the distant future, the Prime Minister could immediately prove him wrong with a call to the executioner. Of course, if he predicted an imminent demise, the angry Prime Minister would surely fulfil it. The Rabbi, thought for a few moments and then, with a vision of clairvoyance, he smiled. “I do not know the exact date your honour, but I can assure you of one thing: I will die one day before you.” Needless to say, the Prime Minister, made every effort to keep the good Rabbi alive for a very long time.