D’var Torah – Mattot Mas’ei

Written by Student Rabbi Nicola Feuchtwang — 21 July 2023

Fifty-one years ago this weekend, my very first Bar Mitzvah pupil stood on the Alyth Bimah to read part of sidra Mattot-Mas’ei.  He and I both still know most of his portion by heart – but to summarise:

When you enter the Promised Land, and are allocating territory to the tribes, you must also set aside towns for the Levites (who can’t own land) to live in,

And there must be six Cities of Refuge to which a person can flee if they have killed someone unintentionally.

At the time, my brother (for it was he) and I thought we understood the passage, although it was a bit heavy on High Priests and murder weapons – but it has taken on fresh significance for me recently.


Torah is very specific that even in a City of Refuge, the killer is far from off the hook if there is clear evidence of what we would now call ‘Malice Aforethought’ or even ‘Culpable Negligence’.  But it recognises the expectation in that cultural environment that the family of the victim would seek honour-vengeance, and would appoint someone to hunt down the alleged perpetrator and kill him if possible.

Torah therefore insists:

‘…The killer should not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly…’ (Numbers 35:12)


Not all societies are the same.  Different societies and subgroups within them may prioritise different values.  For example:

  • Do Individual Rights trump Group Cohesion?
  • Property?
  • Respect for Elders?
  • The Status Quo?
  • Virginity?
  • Family ‘honour’?
  • Life?

Just think for a moment about which would come top in your own hierarchy.

Jewish tradition – most of the time – claims to value LIFE as its No.1.  Interestingly though, from earliest times, it has recognised that there may be tensions between our values.

One of the first passages of Talmud which we studied at Leo Baeck College focussed on ‘Ona’at Devarim’ – the harm we can cause by the way we speak.  The Rabbis considered that Ona’at Devarim was at least as serious a transgression as financial exploitation or other forms of coercion.  Indeed they said that to shame someone in public (“to cause their face to become white”) – even if what is said is true – is tantamount to KILLING them.


I honestly have no idea how much substance there may be behind the furore in the press this week about a certain BBC presenter.

I understand that if wrong has been done, it natural for those affected to seek retribution.

I accept that the media sometimes have a legitimate role in bringing truth to light.


BUT I think that Torah had it right all those years ago when it insisted that no-one – even a killer – should be put to death (even metaphorically) until the matter has been fully investigated and there has been a proper trial.

And | think it is a sad reflection on our society if the only ‘City of Refuge’ to which someone can flee from social vigilantes is a psychiatric hospital.


(Shabbat Shalom)