Parashat Massei: G-d as GPS

In the second of this week’s two Torah portions, Massei, we learn about the commandment to set up cities of refuge.  These were cities where people who had committed manslaughter could live without fear of being killed by a family member of the deceased in search of revenge.  The Torah is concerned that this person who is guilty – but not guilty enough to deserve the death – will be murdered.  In the following midrash, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our teacher) asks HaShem some details about setting up the cities of refuge:

'Sovereign of the Universe! If a man accidentally kills a person in the north or in the south, how is he to know where the cities of refuge are, so as to flee there? Said He to him: … ‘You shall mark the roads so that he shall not miss the way, and, being found by the blood avenger, be killed, even though he was not deserving of death.’  Still he asked Him: ‘How?’ He said to him: ‘Put resting-stations for him on the direct route to the cities of refuge, so that he may know how to get there, and on every station let there be an inscription, saying: The manslayer to the cities of refuge.’  (Bamidbar Rabbah on Massei)

This midrash describes Hashem instructing Moshe to be sure there are well marked signs for the manslayers along the road to the cities of refuge.  But the midrash continues by using this as a metaphor for life in general:

Accordingly David said: ‘Good and upright is Hashem; therefore He instructs sinners in the way.’ (Psalms 25:8) Now, if for manslayers He prepared a path and a road by which they might escape and be delivered, how much more so, in the case of the righteous, is it true that ‘He guides the humble in justice; and teaches the humble His way.’ (Psalms 25:9)

All of life is a journey on our way from being the people we are to the people we want to become.  But oftentimes, we are lost, we make mistakes, we take the wrong path, or make a wrong turn.  This midrash reassures us that Hashem is here to direct us with love and compassion to find the safe haven prepared for us.  The psalm that is quoted in this midrash is a beautiful reflection on Hashem’s role in our life as a teacher, a guide, and a parent-figure.  One of my favorite p’sukim (verses) from this psalm is “Who is the man who fears Hashem?  He shall teach him in the way that he should choose.” (Psalm 25:12). 

This psalm is not recited in its entirety in our liturgy, but there are a couple of p’sukim that are used independently in selections from our siddur.   “Make me know your ways, Hashem; teach me your paths” (25:4) is recited during the repetition of the Rosh Hashanah amidah.  “Remember, Hashem, your compassion and your loving kindness; for they have been from of old” (25:6) is recited both during pezukei d’zimrah (preliminary morning prayers) and tachanun (supplications).   

In the Jewish calendar we are now in a period of time called “The Three Weeks” which refers to the period of time between the minor fast of the 17th of Tammuz and the major fast of Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av); both fasts memorialize tragedies regarding the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) and its destruction.  During this time we read three special haftarot of rebuke which describe impending doom.  Following Tisha B’Av there are then seven haftarot of consolation which lead us to Rosh HaShanah.  This is the time of year when we typically begin thinking about the approaching holiday season and begin our preliminary reflections on repentance.  This reassuring psalm (Psalm 25) reminds us that G-d is here to welcome us lovingly as we search out the right paths to take us towards our better selves.  While we are in this period of the Three Weeks, I invite you to join me in reflecting on the words of this Psalm and beginning the process of return.  Shabbat Shalom.