I have always been fascinated and troubled that our modern world has a news cycle that fixates on one story only to be superseded by another just a few days later. Take the war in Ukraine. For several weeks this spring it was all we could talk about. That eventually gave way to the supreme court and that eventually took a back seat to the tragedy in Highland Park. I feel like a pinball bouncing from side to side only hoping not to fall into the abyss. My anger and frustration are only subdued by the pain I feel for all that have been affected by these events. I looked to this week’s Parsha for guidance, hoping that just maybe there is something our forefathers may have encountered and can teach during such troubling times.
This week’s Parsha, Mas’ei, is the conclusion of the book of Numbers (B’midbar). The Israelites have now wandered for 40 years in the wilderness and have reached Moab, just off the Jordan River and outside of Jericho. A recounting of their exodus and journey occurs ending with Aaron’s passing on Mount Hur. Moses now turns to the people and tells them to enter the land of Israel, overwhelm its inhabitants, destroy their idols, and demolish their cult sanctuaries. Afterward, they are to divide the land by tribal lots. Moses lays out the borders of their land. The Southern border starches from the Southernmost point of the Dead Sea across the Negev desert to the Mediterranean just south of what is today Gaza. The Northern boundary is to run eastward from what today is near the Israel-Lebanon border to near Mount Hermon close to Damascus. The Eastern border is to stretch south from near Damascus to the Sea of Galilee and from there along the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. This land is then to be divided between nine and one-half tribes, reminding them that the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh have been given their portion east of the Jordan River. Additionally, the people are told to assign special towns and lands to the Levites and to choose six cities where an individual who unintentionally murders another may flee, finding the safety and a fair trial. The Parsha wraps up with a discussion regarding the inheritance of land by the daughters of Zelophehad.
I found it rather interesting those specific cities (arei miklat in Hebrew, also referred to as “cities of asylum”) were created for those who committed unintentional murder. The Talmud gives some explanation of the laws and practice. During the biblical period relatives of murdered victims, whether premeditated or not, had the right to find and execute those who were guilty of killing their loved ones. Those whose crime was committed unintentionally had the right to save themselves from the revenge of families by going immediately to one of the six cities of asylum. No obstacle was to stand in the way of those seeking asylum. Upon arrival, unintentional murders presented themselves to elders who offered hospitality. Once rested, they were taken to a court where it was determined whether they were guilty of premeditated murder or involuntary manslaughter. If judged guilty of murder, they were put to death. If guilty of unintentional manslaughter, they were allowed to live rent and tax-free in the refuge city during the lifetime of the incumbent high priest. After the passing of the high priest, they could return to their home cities, without fearing harm from avengers.
Modern commentator Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut speculates that the “institutionalization of such asylum may be the earliest of its kind.” Plaut claims that the notion of the cities of asylum arose out of the need to end family feuds by taking the process of law out of the hands of private individuals and emphasizing the role of public law enforcement. For Plaut, the arei miklat serve three different purposes: they are meant to protect unintentional murderers from the passion of avengers, to punish them, and “to contain and isolate the sin that had been committed.” He suggests that the isolation of sin is the most important, explaining that “the killing of a human being, though it occurred without evil intent, was a moral injury to the total community” because the people of Israel have “a special God-relationship that was founded on zealous regard for the sanctity of every life.”
So how do I use this week’s Parsha as a source of guidance in these turbulent times? If our forefathers had the insight to create an institution that contains sin, then we too can find a way to contain and isolate the sin that is occurring now. As Pault said, “the killing of a human being, though it occurred without evil intent, was a moral injury to the total community.” I struggle to see an end to the conflicts in our world. Both sides have dug their heels in and are attempting to stand their ground. I have been watching a series of video bloggers over the last few months. Each of them attempts to highlight the commonalities we have with each other which will hopefully lead to meaningful connection. I ask today can we put aside our differences and look at the things that make us similar to find a common ground and common-sense solutions? Until that day, I offer a prayer for all those affected by crisis and tragedy, whether antagonist or bystander. May God help us to find the strength to protect the innocent from injustice. May he guide us with open minds and open hearts to find a resolution to the conflict between embattled people. May we soon see a day where everyone can live in peace. Amen.