Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
Parashat Masei is the closing section of the Book of Numbers, which many scholars believe was originally the last Book of Moses, i.e., the last book of the Torah. With the death of Moses, our history continued in the Book of Joshua—but that was before the Book of Deuteronomy, a “second telling” of the whole story, was added to the Torah at a later date. In the meantime, Masei was the official summary of our travels from Egypt and also the official record of the lands to be assigned to each tribe when they reached the Promised Land.
A fascinating thing about this record is the detail with which it describes the allotment to the Levites. As a consecrated people, their portion was to be “The Lord, the God of Israel,” as we learn later in Joshua (13:33), and in lieu of their own territory they were to be assigned towns within the boundaries of each tribal land:
“The Eternal One spoke to Moses in the steppes of Moab at the Jordan near Jericho saying…The towns that you assign to the Levites shall comprise the six cities of refuge that you are to designate for [an unintentional] killer to flee to, to which you shall add forty-two towns. Thus the total of the towns that you assign to the Levites shall be forty-eight towns, with their pasture.” (Num. 35:1 and 6-7)
Recall that a guiding principle in our approach to Torah is that each character represents an aspect of our selves. In this case, it is the essence of each of the tribes of Israel, defined by the unique qualities of each of the twelve forefathers, that is a part of who we are. For instance, the Levites—the priestly caste—represent the highest spiritual part of ourselves, our inner interface with Source. Given this mode of interpretation, the forty-eight towns assigned to the Levites are code for deeply mystical teachings.
A teaching in the Talmudic tractate Pirkei Avot, for example, claims that there are forty-eight qualities we must embody in order to receive Torah, and connects these qualities to the practices we should follow in order to attain that awakened state (Avot 6:5). A midrash tells us that Abraham was forty-eight years old when he awoke to the One God and started preaching against idolatry. Perhaps this midrash affirms that Abraham had fully developed the forty-eight qualities necessary to hear and heed God’s call. Another tradition holds that there were forty-eight prophets who channeled Divine energies and served as God’s “voice.” And then there is the fact that the word be’er, meaning “well,” is mentioned forty-eight times in Torah. A well, in biblical times, was seen as a portal between the material and metaphysical worlds, between the personal and transpersonal states of consciousness. Perhaps each of the forty-eight quality practices mentioned in Pirkei Avot—like each of the wells—is a doorway to those highest mystical states.
The distribution of those forty-eight Levite towns throughout the territories of each of the tribes also has a powerful message for us. All the aspects of our selves, from the embraced to the rejected, from the acceptable to the unwanted, carry within the sparks of Divine Oneness, like dots of the Levitical towns on the map of our multi-layered selves.
Finally, here’s one more insight about the number forty-eight, this one from the Chasidic tradition:
“There were six cities of refuge and altogether forty-eight Levitical cities. This is akin to the Sh’ma…the six Hebrew words of the sentence ‘Hear, O Israel’…and the forty-two words of the paragraph ‘You shall love the Eternal your God…’ that follows, …Just as the ancients could find succor in the Levitical cities when they had sinned, so today one may find surcease in ‘the city of Sh’ma.’” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 1133)
Expanding on this theme, let us say the Sh’ma with new understanding. We take refuge in the deepest listening (Sh’ma) of the soul. We take refuge in the heart of the Spiritual Warrior (Ysrael). We take refuge in the power of the Transcendent One (YHVH). We take refuge in the loving embrace of the All-Manifest (Eloheinu). We take refuge in the deepest knowing that we are not separate from Source, that Source is our being and every being through and through (Echad). Following the Sh’ma, the forty-two words of the V’ahavta are a mediation of the heart, an opening to unconditional loving, a pathway to our higher inner Levite, our True Self. May we realize as we journey to return to the Promised Land, that we had never left.