Before their entry into the Promised Land, God instructs the Children of Israel to perform certain mitzvot (commandments). One of the most important of these appears in this week’s Torah reading (Parashat Matot-Massei, Numbers 30:2-36:13): “And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Speak unto the Children of Israel, and say unto them: When ye pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer that killeth any person through error may flee thither’” (Numbers 35:9-11).
The Children of Israel are instructed by God to dedicate cities of refuge (arei miklat) to which persons who have unintentionally committed manslaughter can escape, thereby avoiding death at the hands of the blood-avenger – a member of the victim’s family who seeks to avenge the victim’s death.
According to a literal reading of the text, the commandment to build these cities of refuge will go into the effect the moment the Children of Israel enter Canaan. However, the precise moment this mitzvah must be obeyed is specified only in the second reference to it – in the Book of Deuteronomy: “When the Lord thy God shall cut off the nations, whose land the Lord thy God giveth thee, and thou dost succeed them, and dwell in their cities, and in their houses; thou shalt separate three cities for thee in the midst of thy land, which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it” (Deut. 19:1-2).
The cities of refuge are to be established after the Jordan is crossed only when the Children of Israel have taken ownership of Canaan from the nations living there, and only when the Israelites have settled the land.
Sifre-Book of Numbers), the relevant midrashic work from the school of Rabbi Ishmael, states: “The text is referring to the period immediately following the Israelites’ assuming ownership of the land and settling it” (Sifre-Numbers: 149).
But an alternative option is also considered, in the same source: “Are we to understand that the text is referring to the period immediately following the Israelites’ ownership and settlement – or should we understand that it is referring to the period immediately following the Israelites’ entry into Canaan? The Torah tells us: ‘When the Lord thy God shall cut off the nations [whose land the Lord thy God giveth thee, and thou dost succeed them, and dwell in their cities, and in their houses; thou shalt separate three cities for thee in the midst of thy land, which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it].’ Thus, we can understand that the text is referring to the period immediately following the Israelites’ assumption of ownership of the land and after they settle it.”
This homily is straightforward and the proof it presents from Deuteronomy strikes one as reasonable. However, Sifre-Deuteronomy – a product of a rival school of thought, of Rabbi Akiva, takes a very different approach: “It is written, ‘When the Lord thy God shall cut off the nations’ – that is, as a reward for your actions” (Sifre-Deuteronomy: 179). Which actions? The midrashic work continues: “It is written, ‘And if the Lord thy God enlarge thy border [as he hath sworn unto thy fathers, and give thee all the land which he promised to give unto thy fathers]’ (Deut. 19:8). The cities of refuge must be allocated so that God will reward Israel and expand its borders” (Sifre-Deuteronomy: 184).
Thus, according to this source, the banishment of other nations from Canaan and the expansion of its borders are not a condition for the creation of the cities of refuge, but rather a reward for their establishment. It is obvious in Sifre-Deuteronomy that the allocation of cities is a mitzvah which must be fulfilled by the Israelites immediately upon entry into the Promised Land.
This is not the only instance where the midrashim produced by the school of Rabbi Ishmael claim that certain commandments are to be performed after the Israelites have banished other nations and assumed ownership of the land, whereas those of the school of Rabbi Akiva claim the opposite. Other instances include the blessing and cursing ritual on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, the mitzvah to destroy all symbols of idolatry, the commandment to build the Temple, and the obligation to install a king to rule Israel.
Indeed, wherever the Torah states, “And it shall be, when thou art come in unto the land,” Rabbi Ishmael and his disciples argue that the “text is referring to the period immediately following the Israelites’ assumption of ownership of the land and after they settle it.” In contrast, wherever the Torah states, “And it shall come to pass, when the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land” or “And it shall be, when thou art come in unto the land” or “And it shall come to pass, when ye be come to the land” – Rabbi Akiva and his disciples argue that the commandment must be performed immediately upon entry into Canaan (see Mechilta de-Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai, 13:5 and 13:11; Sifre-Deuteronomy: 55 and 297).
In a Hebrew-language article, “‘And it shall be, when thou art come in unto the land’: The Dispute between the Tanaim and Its Realpolitik Meaning,” scholar Menahem Kahana suggests that the dispute between the two schools stems not from an issue of historical interpretation – that is, at what point in time were the various commandments supposed to go into effect – but rather a burning political question relevant to that particular era: namely, the extent to which Jews are obligated to perform certain mitzvot so as to assert their sovereignty over the Promised Land.
Regarding the commandment to destroy the symbols of idolatry – “Ye shall surely destroy all the places, wherein the nations that ye are to dispossess served their gods” (Deut. 12:2) – Rabbi Ishmael’s school argues that the “text is referring to the period immediately following the Israelites’ assuming ownership of the land and settling it. Thus, Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai stated: ‘Do not hurry to destroy the idolatrous altars of the Gentiles so that you will then not have to build new ones yourselves. Do not destroy altars built with bricks because then you will be ordered to build new altars with stone. Do not destroy altars built with stone because then you will be ordered to build new altars with wood’” (Mechilta Deuteronomy, 12:2).
According to Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, just as the Israelites were not commanded to destroy the other nations’ idolatrous symbols immediately upon their entry into Canaan, but only after they had settled the land – similarly in his era, following the Temple’s destruction, when the Romans rule the land, he recommends that Jews not hurry to destroy the Roman regime’s pagan symbols so that they will not be ordered to rebuild them themselves.
Elsewhere, he also warns against the danger of the hasty destruction of such symbols, and says: “If the elders instruct you to refrain from rebuilding the Temple, listen to them because, when members of the younger generation build something, the result is destruction, and when the elders destroy something or avoid rebuilding it, the result is its eventual construction” (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, version 2, 31).
The hasty building of the Temple, without regard for the political implications, could bring about its destruction, whereas, the elders, relying on their experience, urge that the Temple not be rebuilt immediately, the result being its eventual reconstruction. Rabbi Yohanan’s position on this issue is no doubt related to his decision to leave Jerusalem before its destruction and to set up a center of Jewish learning in Yavneh.
Kahana argues that Rabbi Akiva and his disciples advocated hastening the redemption of Israel through the establishment of cities of refuge, the coronation of a king, the destruction of idolatrous places of worship, construction of the Temple, and so on, because they believed his was the only way to banish the Romans and reassume ownership of the land. Rabbi Ishmael’s school believed that such actions would produce the opposite effect.