Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge to which a manslayer who has killed a person unintentionally may flee. (Numbers 35:1-0-11) Mas’ei’s, two central themes, the importance of fairness and having evidence comes to light. As our ancestors journeyed across the desert, they probably didn’t have much time to think about forming a society. But when they finally settled in the Land, it was time for them to develop the laws and rules that would help them all get along as part of a sacred community.
One of those first laws was about “the city of refuge.”
Although like all of you, the idea of murder, in any form and the subsequent, unspeakable loss that follows creates a tension in my gut, I found, once again, a sense of powerful respect for Torah. Mas’ei addresses the issue of unintentional manslaughter. What is the appropriate penalty for someone who kills another person unintentionally? Should there be any penalty at all? The parashah discusses the establishment of six cities of refuge, Ir Miklat, set aside as a permanent asylum for anyone who unintentionally killed another person. Once within their walls, the manslayer was protected by law against any revenge or additional punishment.
In this way, the Torah insisted that killing another person is reprehensible, but it also asserted a distinction between murder, which is deliberate, and manslaughter, which is not.
We know that contemporary American law makes a similar distinction, mandating a varying degree of severity to correspond to the different levels of responsibility due to intention and circumstance. More than three thousand years earlier, the Torah instituted those same legal distinctions based on diverse intentions.
I am always so amazed at the uniqueness of the Torah’s insight and to get a full appreciation is to contrast biblical law with other ancient standards. Bear with me as I share a piece of history.
Ancient Greece, Sumer, Phoenecia, and other cultures all articulated a notion of asylum. In those civilizations, a murderer could flee to a local shrine and gain protection at the altar of the local deity. Whether the death had been intended was irrelevant to the power of the shrine to protect the murderer. The pagan idol was no less holy, no less powerful, just because the murderer intended to kill his victim.
Not so the Torah’s law. The Torah asserts emphatically that the six cities of refuge would only protect the unintentional manslayer. The willful murderer was to be evicted, tried, and punished. No matter how powerful the divinity whose altar provides shelter, the Torah mandates that religion cannot interpose itself between a murderer and justice. Religion is a way of life, not a shield for violence.
Also diverging from other ancient law codes, the Torah does not determine the severity of punishment based on the status of the victim. Murdering a free man, woman, child, slave, or foreigner all resulted in the same penalty. Since all human beings reflect God’s image, all people deserve equal protection and possess equal worth.
In the law of the cities of refuge, the Torah presented something breathtakingly new and exciting and that is the assertion that inner intention determines the meaning of an action – this was revolutionary. While all intentional murders are abhorrent, they are not the same as an accidental homicide; one who kills unintentionally is still guilty but of a lesser offense. In fact, the Talmud expanded upon this insight to provide for the release without penalty of those involved in complete accidents. Intention matters.
And just to add a spin to this d’var… Everyone needs a second chance! And no one likes to be accused of having done something wrong whether that be a crime or even a social misstep without evidence and a fair hearing.
We can all think about times in our lives when a second chance would have made a difference. It is probably not too difficult to think about times when we might have been too quick to judge a friend or family member before having full evidence. We, ourselves may have been judged by others.
The city of refuge, therefore, is not merely an ancient and obscure concept. Although we do not have cities of refuge as described in Torah, the idea remains a noble lesson for our time. Even and especially today, many of us need ‘cities of refuge’ – places (physical or emotional) that will provide refuge from overly harsh judgment. We need to remember that intention matters. Most often when we are hurt or have hurt others, it was not with the intent to cause pain. We need to embrace and believe in second chances for others and for ourselves… for the sake of treasured relationships. May we each continue to allow Torah to guide us in our daily lives, providing insight and diverse perspectives.
Dr. Anne Lidsky