Commentary on Mattot-Ma’asei

5 Jul

Numbers 35:5, from this week’s reading, has one of the highest (if not the highest) number of unique cantillation groups in the entire Torah. While the number is already high on its own, it is bolstered up a bit the presence of two cantillation marks that do not appear anywhere else in the Torah. One would think that a verse this exciting would be about some major religious concept, but this verse is about as far from exciting as one can get. Somehow, these two cantillation marks which are unique in the entire Torah wound up in a verse that deals with ancient zoning laws for the towns of the Levites, and on words (the first “two thousand cubits”) which are nothing more than a number in a measurement, which is then repeated three other times with much more common trope. To explain how something so exciting could wind up in so dull a spot, we must look at the verse as a whole.
The first appearance of the words “two thousand cubits” is marked with the two rare cantillation marks, Yerach ben Yomo and Karnei Parah. The second is marked with Kadma V’Azla, a set of cantillation marks that start in the middle and go high. The third is marked with Munach and Revi’ah, which start in the middle and go low. The final repetition of the words “two thousand cubits” use the notes Mercha and Tipcha, which are so short that they barely even sound musical, and not even the end of their cantillation group.

Through this pattern, our tradition is giving us a warning. Any new mitzvah, even something as dull as zoning in the land of Israel, is exciting the first time you do it. With repetition, though, we can start to lose our excitement for the mitzvah, with our enthusiasm for it going from high to low to practically non-existent, to the point where we might be focusing on something else entirely while we do it.

Obviously we should always be paying full attention to the mitzvah at hand, but that is doubly true in the case of a mitzvah like this one, which requires measuring, lest we make a mistake. The Levites are often mentioned in the Torah along with the other classes of poor people who the community is required to support, such as widows and orphans, because while they were given communal cities in the Promised Land, they were not individually allowed to own land, and were required to share that land with anyone seeking who came along seeking asylum. Any mistake in measuring the exclusive economic zones of the Levite cities (or the tithes which were the Levites’ primary means of support), would, in essence, be stealing from the poor. If we do not heed the warning in this verse, it could lead to miscarriages of justice that will hurt the most vulnerable in our society. We must challenge ourselves to find ways to make even the most humdrum of mitzvahs exciting new experiences, because if we become bored in our observance we not only miss out on great experiences ourselves, but we might come to accidentally bring harm to others as well.

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