FIGHTERS AND BUILDERS, in Israel and Hawaii by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

The last chapters of the Book of Numbers accent words and conditions that echo significantly in modern times.  Still camped on the east side of the Jordan River, Moses and his associates, Elazar the High Priest (Aaron’s son and successor since Aaron’s death) and Joshua who will later succeed Moses, receive instructions as to how to conquer and divide the Land of Israel among the tribes and their families. 

          First comes the fighting force.  Each man over the age of 20 is drafted.  He then becomes a Halutz, here translated “armed.”  Some 25 centuries later that word got revived into modern Hebrew, as the Jews returned to the Land.  Now a halutz is translated “pioneer.”  Indeed the pioneering effort included some armed conflict.   That conflict recurs all too often even though the pioneering days are mostly past.  But in Numbers, all the tribes are required to supply fighters, halutzim — all the tribes, whether they will settle west of the Jordan or, like Reuben and Gad and half the tribe of Menasseh, will make their homes where they found good pastureland on the east bank.

          Settling and maintaining the Land of Israel thus becomes the responsibility of all Jews including those who live in the Diaspora.  Like the tribesmen of Reuben and Gad, we are again called on to send young builders – and some old money – to help in this effort.

          These chapters also lay out the boundaries of the Land of Israel.  Some of the places named don’t tell us much, since place names changed many times since Biblical days, but others are quite clear.   For example, Lake Kinneret also known as the Sea of Galilee on the northern border, and the Jordan River and the Salt Sea (or Dead Sea) on the east.  (No West Bank fictions here.)  And of course the Mediterranean on the west.     

          Of particular interest are the Cities of Refuge that the Torah mandates even before the land is conquered.  If a killing takes place that is not premeditated murder, the killer can take refuge in one of these cities and remain safe from the revenge of the victim’s family.  Six of these cities must be established, three on each side of the Jordan.  The accidental killer must remain in the city until the death of the current High Priest.  He is not to leave this self-imposed detention.  If he does, the “blood redeemer” (generally the victim’s next of kin) can legally kill him.  But also, the Torah explicitly defines who is eligible to use the City of Refuge, and gives examples of the types of accidental injury that qualify.  It also details examples of deliberate violence that does not qualify.  Justice must be done.  Punish the guilty and protect the innocent.  Check Chapter 35.

          A fascinating parallel to this passage appears in, of all places, Hawaii.   We once visited a national park in an isolated cave, accessible only by water, where I saw a diorama – a sand image on the cave wall – explaining the historical function of that cave and others like it.  It was a refuge for the accidental killer, and he could remain there safely until the death of the Big Kahuna – Hawaiian for High Priest!  Even the word “kahuna” is related to the Hebrew “cohen.”  Astonished at the parallel, I consulted a friend who was at that time the only rabbi in Hawaii, and learned that the early Polynesian settlers of those islands arrived there in open boats over some 1,000 miles of ocean.  To make such a voyage they needed navigators.   At that time, the best navigators in the world were Jewish sailors.  When they arrived in the beautiful new islands of Hawaii, they stayed.  So did the navigators.  In fact, the Hawaiian language now includes words that have similar sound and identical meaning to those words in Hebrew.  Kahuna is one.  Another is the word for gift: makana in Hawaiian, matana in Hebrew.

          It all goes back to the Book of Numbers! 



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