Matot – Masei תשפב

This Shabbat we will read the last two portions in the book of Numbers, Matot and Masei. Before Moshe died, Hashem let him see the Land of Israel that he so desperately wanted to enter. As the book ends, there are a few business matters that Moshe needed to attend to, namely, drawing the boundaries of the Land of Israel and apportioning the Land to the tribes. Even though this information would be relevant only after entering the Land, since it was part of the Torah it had to be done through Moshe. 

After conquering the kingdoms of Sichon and Og on the East side of the Jordan river, the tribes of Reuven and Gad requested it as their portion instead of Land in Israel proper because it was verdant and had ample pasture land for their substantial flocks. Moshe conditionally granted their wish, and upon fulfillment of the condition, they would receive that land as their portion. Half of the tribe of Menashe joined them on the other side of the Jordan river. 

Now that there would be a Jewish presence on the East side of the Jordan, there would also need to be three ערי מקלט  – Orei Miklat – Cities of Refuge. equidistantly dispersed throughout the land. A city of refuge served as a safe haven for one who inadvertently killed a fellow Jew. According to Torah law, the deceased’s relative, or any other person for that matter, was permitted to kill him, but should the murderer reach one of the designated cities of refuge, he was safe. Indeed, if someone killed him in a city of refuge, that killer would himself be guilty of murder and would be accordingly punished.

The Torah says (Numbers 35:13-15):

(יג) וְהֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר תִּתֵּנוּ שֵׁשׁ עָרֵי מִקְלָט תִּהְיֶינָה לָכֶם :

(יד) אֵת שְׁלשׁ הֶעָרִים תִּתְּנוּ מֵעֵבֶר לַיַּרְדֵּן וְאֵת שְׁלשׁ הֶעָרִים תִּתְּנוּ בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן עָרֵי מִקְלָט תִּהְיֶינָה:

(טו) לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלַגֵּר וְלַתּוֹשָׁב בְּתוֹכָם תִּהְיֶינָה שֵׁשׁ הֶעָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לְמִקְלָט לָנוּס שָׁמָּה כָּל מַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ בִּשְׁגָגָה:

13)  As to the cities that you shall designate, there shall be six cities of refuge for you. 14) Three cities shall you designate on the other side of the Jordan, and three cities shall you designate in the land of Canaan; they shall be cities of refuge. 15) For the Bnai Yisroel and the proselyte and resident among them shall these six cities be a refuge, far anyone who kills a person unintentionally to flee there. 

In the interest of helping the accidental murderer expediently reach his destination so that the avenger is unable to get him, the Torah mandates that the roads leading to the city of refuge be wider than regular roads so that there will be no backups, and that there be clear signage at every intersection pointing out the correct direction to the city of refuge. He must be able to reach the city without ever having to ask for directions. 

Although the Torah mentions only the refuge city’s life-saving benefit, there is also a second component to it: a punishment for the murderer. Even though his act was unintentional, that such a terrible result – the loss of a human life– has come about through him, makes him a sinner in need of atonement. Even if there is no one to avenge the murder and he is unafraid of being killed for his crime, he may not leave the city of refuge for any reason. Even if the entire Jewish nation needed him, say, to lead the army in a battle, he would not be permitted to leave. Being a prisoner in the foreign city serves as an atonement for his crime. 

What crime, you ask? Wasn’t it unintentional? Exile to a city of refuge is mandated only when an element of negligence was present in the killing. 

For an intentional murder, a city of refuge provides no protection at all. Initially, he will flee to the city of refuge to protect himself from an avenger who might kill him before his trial. But eventually, the court will call for him, try him, and, if he is found guilty of deliberate murder, execute him. If, for a technical reason (for example, if there was no warning), the court cannot execute him, he will be a fugitive for the rest of his life, as any relative can avenge the blood of his deceased relative and kill him, even in a city of refuge. 

Similarly, one who is grossly negligent is comparable to one who killed deliberately. Since he needed to be more respectful of human life, and by being more careful he could have prevented the death, his actions are considered deliberate. He also will be a lifetime fugitive because a city of refuge provides him no protection. 

On the other hand, a freak accident, one which no one could foresee and prevent, does not require the person to go to a city of refuge. If a person threw a stone where no one was present and someone ran into its path and took it on his head, the one who threw the stone is exempt from going to a city of refuge. Since it was not his fault, and there is no way that he could have prevented it, he carries no liability.

The fine line between what is considered negligence versus a freak accident is the subject of an argument in the Talmud. 

The Torah provides the scenario in which a person must go to a city of refuge in Deuteronomy (19:4,5):

(ד) וְזֶה דְּבַר הָרֹצֵחַ אֲשֶׁר יָנוּס שָׁמָּה וָחָי אֲשֶׁר יַכֶּה אֶת רֵעֵהוּ בִּבְלִי דַעַת וְהוּא לֹא שׂנֵא לוֹ מִתְּמֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם:

(ה) וַאֲשֶׁר יָבֹא אֶת רֵעֵהוּ בַיַּעַר לַחְטֹב עֵצִים וְנִדְּחָה יָדוֹ בַגַּרְזֶן לִכְרֹת הָעֵץ וְנָשַׁל הַבַּרְזֶל מִן הָעֵץ וּמָצָא אֶת רֵעֵהוּ וָמֵת הוּא יָנוּס אֶל אַחַת הֶעָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וָחָי:

4) This is the matter of the killer who shall flee there and live. One who will strike his fellow without knowledge, and he did not hate him from yesterday or before yesterday. 5) Or who will come with his fellow into the forest to hew trees, and his hand swings the axe to cut the tree, and the iron slips from the wood (handle) and finds his fellow and he dies, he shall flee to one of these cities and live. 

The story seems straightforward. A man was chopping wood in the forest when the axe head flew off its handle, accidentally struck someone, and killed him. Since he was chopping wood, it would seem that the axe head was not loose or it wouldn’t chop properly. But in the course of his chopping, apparently the head became loose and he didn’t realize it. The next thing he knew, it flew off and struck the other fellow, killing him. This is the type of situation that mandates fleeing to a city of refuge. He could have checked his axe periodically to make sure that it was secure. Indeed, since the consequences of having a loose axe head are so great, it is prudent to periodically check the condition of the axe. Because he did not, which means that he did not assign the proper importance to human life by considering the danger of what he was doing, he is guilty of negligence and requires atonement through exile in a city of refuge. 

This is the opinion of the majority of Sages in the Talmud. It is interesting to note Rabbi Yehudah’s differing explanation of the story in the verses quoted above. 

He explains the verse, “Or who will come with his fellow into the forest to hew trees, and his hand swings the axe to cut the tree, and the iron cuts (a piece) from the wood and it finds his fellow and he dies, he shall flee to one of these cities and live“ to mean that the axe head did not leave the handle and strike someone; rather, a piece of wood that he chopped flew off as a result of the axe head, striking someone who died from the blow of the woodchip. 

According to Rabbi Yehudah, the Sages’ version is too close to negligence to permit the woodchopper to run to a city of refuge. It is too direct. The case instead is, where a piece of wood flew off and killed someone. On the one hand, he could have been more careful by not chopping when others were nearby, but on the other hand, it was not his fault since he has no control over where the woodchips will fly when the axe hits them. According to Rabbi Yehudah’s opinion, only this minor degree of negligence is acceptable to allow the woodchopper to go to a city of refuge. 

The Sages, on the other hand, consider the wood flying off and killing someone a freak accident and not something he could have prevented, and, therefore, in this case he would be exempt from exile.  

The law is in accordance with the Sages who comprise the majority opinion. It is interesting, however, to contemplate the two sides of the argument. 

There is aמדה כנגד מדה  – measure for measure – a direct correlation between the crime and the punishment. Because this person caused his victim’s soul to leave this world prematurely, the perpetrator must leave his comfortable place of residence and live in foreign surroundings. 

How long must he live in the city of refuge? The Torah tells us (Numbers 35:25). 

(כה) וְהִצִּילוּ הָעֵדָה אֶת הָרֹצֵחַ מִיַּד גֹּאֵל הַדָּם וְהֵשִׁיבוּ אֹתוֹ הָעֵדָה אֶל עִיר מִקְלָטוֹ אֲשֶׁר נָס שָׁמָּה וְיָשַׁב בָּהּ עַד מוֹת הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדֹל אֲשֶׁר מָשַׁח אֹתוֹ בְּשֶׁמֶן הַקֹּדֶשׁ

25) The assembly (court) shall rescue the murderer from the hand of the avenger of the blood, and the assembly shall return him to his city of refuge where he had fled; he shall dwell in it until the death of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) whom one had anointed with the sacred oil.  

Why did the Torah choose the Kohen Gadol’s death as the release agent for the murderers? 

Rashi explains.

עד מות הכהן הגדול – שהוא בא להשרות שכינה בישראל ולהאריך ימיהם והרוצח בא לסלק את השכינה מישראל ומקצר את ימי החיים. אינו כדאי שיהא לפני כהן גדול

Because the Kohen Gadol’s job is to bring Hashem’s presence to the Jewish people and to lengthen their days, and the murderer comes to remove Hashem’s presence from the Jewish nation and shorten their days, he should not be about when the Kohen Gadol is. 

When I taught a class on this topic to a group of men, one of my students related the following story. 

When he was a child, he played baseball in the Little League. One of his teammates got up to bat, and, after hitting the ball, he threw the bat. The bat struck the catcher in the chest crushing his heart, killing him on the spot. My student said, “I am now a grown man, but whenever I see that guy, I can’t help but think, ‘that’s the guy who killed the kid.’”

When the murderer would be out and about like nothing happened, his presence would be a constant reminder of how he caused Hashem’s presence to leave the Jewish people. His presence alone would remind us of how he shortened someone’s life. This would counteract the Kohen Gadol’s efforts to increase Hashem’s presence and lengthen the Jewish people’s days. Therefore, he must remove himself from society until the Kohen Gadol dies.

Our Sages teach us many valuable lessons from the way the Torah treats an accidental murder. 

The loss of a life through an accident that could have been prevented with a bit more care is considered the greatest tragedy in the world. Such a tremendous “to-do” surrounds the careless person who failed to appreciate the lethal capabilities of the tool he was holding in his hand. (Only an item capable of delivering a lethal blow will bring exile to the one who killed with it.) As noted, all the roads leading to the cities of refuge carried signs reminding people to be careful so as not to need to use the signs! Care and respect for the importance of a single Jewish soul pervaded society, guarding and protecting from unnecessary death through accident.  

This lesson is extremely relevant in our times. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we see a tremendous lack of respect for human life. Why would a person shoot randomly into a crowd of people he doesn’t know, just to kill innocent people? Why would a person kill innocent children and their teachers in a school? This is not murder where one person hates another or needs to get him out of the way. This is killing for no reason. Could it be because we live in a society that watches movie after movie of people fighting and beating each other to death, shooting and killing each other by the hundreds; dead bodies flying through the air after being blown up, etc. without as much as a thought given to the victims? Does anyone ever wonder what happened to all those dead people? Did anyone mourn for them? Were they ever buried? Of course not! All of these dying people are just props in a movie and are as important as the tissue you just threw into the garbage. Could this possibly be why shootings are commonplace in our society? Life isn’t real to people, it’s plastic.

At the same time, look at the sensitivity and consideration that the Torah has for the unfortunate person who accidentally committed the act. He had no intention of hurting anyone and is extremely pained and distressed at having had such a terrible result come from him. He wishes that he could go back in time and undo the calamity that he brought about through his negligence. The Torah protects him by making sure that he can swiftly and safely reach the city of refuge before the avenger of the blood gets ahold of him. The Torah is sensitive to his feelings by making sure that he can arrive at the city of refuge without having to reveal to people what he did, by asking directions. 

The verse says:

(כה) וְהִצִּילוּ הָעֵדָה אֶת הָרֹצֵחַ מִיַּד גֹּאֵל הַדָּם וְהֵשִׁיבוּ אֹתוֹ הָעֵדָה אֶל עִיר מִקְלָטוֹ אֲשֶׁר נָס שָׁמָּה וְיָשַׁב בָּהּ עַד מוֹת הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדֹל אֲשֶׁר מָשַׁח אֹתוֹ בְּשֶׁמֶן הַקֹּדֶשׁ

25) The assembly (court) shall rescue the murderer from the hand of the avenger of the blood, and the assembly shall return him to his city of refuge where he had fled; he shall dwell in it until the death of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) whom one had anointed with the sacred oil.  

The Torah instructs the court to try to rescue – acquit- the murderer, even one who murdered deliberately. The judges must put forth extreme effort to find merit for him to acquit him rather than find excuses to kill him. There is a stunning law that illustrates this point. 

For cases of life and death, a court of 23 judges is required. To sentence a person to death, there must me a majority of at least two, whereas, to acquit, a majority of one is sufficient. The Torah nevertheless surprisingly rules that if all 23 judges render a guilty verdict, the plaintive goes scot-free. How is that possible? The verdict is, after all, unanimous! What could be more guilty than that? The answer is that if not even one judge found a reason to acquit the defendant, it is obvious that the judges failed in the directive stated above, and did not try sufficiently to find him innocent. Therefore, it is a mistrial.      

There is an amazing story with Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik and a rebellious young Jew from his city, Brisk. This young man was so anti-religious, that every Shabbat morning he would deliberately go by Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik’s house smoking a cigarette. 

This rebellious fellow was later drafted into the Russian army and, in the presence of some of his comrades, shot his pistol at a picture of the Czar Nikola. His “friends” reported him to the head of the city few a days before Rosh Hashana 1866, and, two days after Rosh Hashana, he was sentenced to death by firing squad on the eve of Sukkot. 

A Jew who frequented the home of the head of the city reported the fate of the young man to Rabbi Chaim, but told him that the head of the city is prepared to let the boy go, provided that he moves to another town and that they pay the sum of 5,000 Rubles. 

Upon hearing his words, Rabbi Chaim immediately summoned the city’s leaders to his home for an emergency meeting. When they arrived, he told them that they must procure the necessary money from the community coffers to ransom the boy, even if it completely depletes the funds, and any missing monies they must provide from their own pockets. Rabbi Chaim’s demand sent the assemblage into a frenzy. They were astounded. “For that boy we have to give up all the community’s money? It as a mitzvah to let him be killed. We will be eradicating evil from our midst!” They claimed. 

Rabbi Chaim rejected their protests and insisted that they come up with the money. 

In spite of Rabbi Chaim’s directive, the city’s leaders would not comply with his request and did not come forth with the money. 

Rabbi Chaim wouldn’t take no for an answer. On the eve of Yom Kippur, when early in the afternoon the members of his congregation came to shul to pray Mincha, Rabbi Chaim stood up and announced to the heads of the community that they are forbidden to go home and eat the meal before the fast. Instead, they must go to the offices of the congregation and get the 5,000 Rubles necessary to pay the ransom. Then they must take it to the home of the head of the city and pay him the money to release the boy. He then added that if they do not comply, he will not permit them to pray “Kol Nidrei” and the shul will remain closed for Yom Kippur! 

When they saw that they had no choice, they complied. Together, they went to the community offices, assembled the money, and went directly to the head of the city to pay the ransom. 

Upon receipt of the money, the city head released the boy. But by the time that the delegation returned from his house, there was no time to eat anything before Yom Kippur. 

A Jewish soul is a Jewish soul, and Rabbi Chaim understood that deeply. 

At the very end of this chapter the Torah says, (35:33)

(לג) וְלֹא תַחֲנִיפוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בָּהּ כִּי הַדָּם הוּא יַחֲנִיף אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְלָאָרֶץ לֹא יְכֻפַּר לַדָּם אֲשֶׁר שֻׁפַּךְ בָּהּ כִּי אִם בְּדַם שֹׁפְכוֹ:

33) You shall not bring guilt upon the land in which you are, for the blood will bring guilt upon the Land; the Land will now have atonement for the blood that was spilled in it, except through the blood of the one who spilled it. 

The court is warned not to forgive a murderer of his death penalty or his stint in a city of refuge, out of honor, or even for a payment of money. This will pollute the Land with iniquity, and cause Hashem’s presence to leave it. Rather, each must receive his just sentence, because this will provide the appropriate atonement for the sin, and thus, cleanse the crime from the Land.

The general translation of the word חנף  is to falsely flatter someone in order to get ahead, what is commonly called bootlicking, or brownnosing. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein זצ”ל wonders how giving murderers a pass is “bootlicking” the Land? 

His answer is profound.

All governments have laws against murder. These laws are essential to keep law and order in society. If anyone could murder with impunity, chaos would reign. This idea is expressed in the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (3:2). 

(ב) רַבִּי חֲנִינָא סְגַן הַכֹּהֲנִים אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתְפַּלֵּל בִּשְׁלוֹמָהּ שֶׁל מַלְכוּת, שֶׁאִלְמָלֵא מוֹרָאָהּ, אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ חַיִּים בָּלָעוּ

Rabbi Chanina, the vice Kohen said: Pray for the peace of your government, for without fear of the government, each man would swallow his fellow alive.

Governments remove murderers from society because they jeopardize others’ lives. When someone perceives that a person is dangerous to society, in an effort to protect the people’s welfare, he takes the liberty of removing him. He has no remorse for having terminated the life of a fellow human being, because not only does he feel justified, he has done the world a favor. A person has no intrinsic value. His value is based on what he can contribute to the world. 

This is why doctors feel free to remove an elderly person from a life-sustaining machine to make it available to someone younger. The young person has many years in front of him to benefit society, whereas the elderly person is no longer able to contribute, and is a burden on society. Doctors feel they are providing a service to the world by removing the elderly who are just using up valuable resources without contributing to the world. In the secular view, life itself has no value; its value lies only in the benefit the world can derive from it. 

The Torah teaches us that murder is forbidden because of the inherent importance of a human being who was created in the image of Hashem. Every soul is precious, and has a purpose in the world, which it is fulfilling every moment of life until its last living breath. Because life in this world is to fulfill a mission, and through it, to earn reward in the World to Come, even one second of life is precious, since with every second one can fulfill his purpose in life. 

When we don’t see the intrinsic importance of a human life, and instead see it only as a means to benefit the world, we are “bootlicking” the world so-to-speak, by giving the world false importance and acting like it is the primary reason for life, and everything else is secondary.

How wholesome and profound is the perspective of the Torah; that human life is the primary reason for the world and the most important thing in the world. 

Indeed, our Sages teach us in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a),

שכל המאבד נפש אחת מישראל מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא וכל המקיים נפש אחת מישראל מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא

Whoever destroys a Jewish soul, it is as if he has destroyed an entire world, and anyone who saves a Jewish soul, it is as if he has saved the entire world. 

We must do everything in our power not to allow the influence of the world around us to erode and undermine this holy perspective. One sure way would be to curtail our exposure to wanton killing and senseless loss of life. 

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