“Do Not Pollute the Land…Do Not Defile the Land”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the second of this week’s double parashiot, Matot-Masei, the Torah describes the contours of the Levite cities and deals at length with the special cities of refuge that were set aside for unintentional murderers.

As part of the related discussion regarding the taking of life, the Torah, in Numbers 35:31, warns not to accept ransom for the life of a murderer who is worthy of death or for an unintentional murderer who leaves the city of refuge before the death of the High Priest. In this manner, the Torah stresses the ultimate sanctity of life, underscoring that under no circumstances may murder be condoned or excused. Those who take life are not permitted to buy their freedom, lest the land itself [Canaan] in which G-d dwells, be contaminated.

The Torah then states (Numbers 35:33): “V’loh tah’chah’nee’foo eht hah’ah’retz ah’sher ah’tem bah, kee hah’dahm, hoo yah’chah’neef eht hah’ah’retz,” You should not pollute the land on which you are, for the blood pollutes the land. The verse then dramatically asserts that the land will have no atonement for the blood that was spilled in it, except by the blood of the one who spilled it. The very next verse then warns the people (Numbers 35:34): “V’loh t’tah’may eht hah’ah’retz ah’sher ah’tem yoh’shvim bah, ah’sher Ah’nee sho’chayn b’toh’chah,” And you shall not contaminate the land that you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the L-rd dwell in the midst of the Children of Israel.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) translates the words, “v’loh tah’chah’nee’foo,” as a warning to the people not to “make the land evil,” or as Targum Onkelos (Onkelos, c.35 C.E.-120 C.E., author of the definitive Aramaic translation of the bible) renders it, “You shall not bring the land into ill repute.”

The Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator), quoting the Sifrei, translates the words, “v’loh tah’chah’nee’foo,” based on the root of the Hebrew verb that means to “flatter.” After warning that no ransom may be taken for the life of a murderer, the Torah adds a further admonition that a murderer may not be shown favor or discharged because of his powerful position or the influence of his family.

The commentators explain that the Torah warns not to defile the land, because the Divine presence cannot tolerate a place of impurity. Since the essence of the Divine presence dwells in the midst of the Jewish people, the people would need to be exiled from the defiled land so that the Divine presence could continue to be with them. We learn from this that the exile of the People of Israel is due to the exile of the Divine presence, and not the other way around.

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Yehudah Leibish Malbim, 1809-1879, leading Torah scholar in Germany, Romania and Russia) also explains the words, “v’loh tah’chah’nee’foo,” to mean “flattery,” which he defines as something “that is not as it appears to be” –a righteous person who is evil inside; a land that looks fertile, but yields poor quality fruit. Citing the Al-mighty’s warning, the Malbim explains that this is what the Torah in Deuteronomy 28 predicts will happen if the people fail to heed G-d’s words, “You will bring much seed out of the fields, but you will harvest little (v. 38). You will plant vineyards, and work them, but you will not drink wine (v. 39). You will have olive trees throughout your boundaries, but you will not anoint yourself with oil (v.40). All your trees and the fruit of the land, the locusts will inherit” (v. 42). This, the Malbim asserts, will be the quid pro quo, the punishment, for “flattering” a murderer by declaring him innocent in return for a bribe.

I would like to suggest a possible metaphorical interpretation to these verses. Perhaps, in these declamations, the Al-mighty warns His people to be faithful to the land of Israel and to be honest with themselves regarding the land of Israel. Supporters of Israel must not delude themselves into thinking that all is perfect in Israel and must not overly flatter Israel. Indeed Israel’s faults, shortcomings and blemishes must always be acknowledged. On the other hand, our people must not defile the land by focusing only on its shortcomings and blemishes and fail to see its overwhelming goodness and merits.

Even in this day and age, when Israel is under unprecedented attack, accused of genocide and war crimes, when every means of self-defense is denied Israel no matter how cautious and careful the government is, our credibility will be lost if we are not forthcoming regarding the shortcomings of Israel, the land and the people.

Of course, at a time when the whole world is critical of Israel, we have a right to fiercely defend it by focusing more on its unprecedented achievements than on its faults, which only provides further ammunition to our enemies. Deep in our hearts, we need to recognize and know that everyone and everything can always improve and striving for perfection will always remain the historic goal of our people and its Torah.

Therefore, let us neither flatter the land nor defile the land, but rather regard it with truth and honesty to help it achieve perfection. Finally, let us pray that peace prevail in Zion and hope that Israel’s citizens shall soon merit to dwell in tranquility and security.

May you be blessed.