Parshat Masei (Numbers 33:1-36:13)
The Book of Bamidbar (Numbers) concludes with Parshat Masei. The Jewish People approach the end of its sojourn through the desert after forty years of wandering, and stand at the eastern border of the Promised Land. Nearly every chapter of this portion seems to whet the appetites of a nation on the brink of entering the Holy Land.
It features a summation of all of the nation of Israel’s travels in the desert, ending with an order issued directly by God to enter the Land and inherit it. Later, the Torah delineates the borders of the Land the Jewish people are meant to conquer, and lists the names of those responsible for apportioning the inheritances of each of the tribes. It also lays out the green areas that would surround Israelite cities. (Rashi)
One subject, however, takes us by surprise, and seems to be out of place, namely, the lengthy discussion of willful and inadvertent murderers:
“When you cross the Jordan to the Land of Canaan, you shall arrange cities for yourselves, cities of refuge shall they be for you, and a killer shall flee there – one who takes a life unintentionally.”
– Bamidbar / Numbers 25:10-11
The Torah devotes no less than twenty-five verses to explaining how we are to deal with murderers and those who had killed others through negligence or lack of foresight. The Torah warns us against taking “atonement money” (apparently in reference to wealthier families) as a substitute for the penalty prescribed in the Torah for willful murderers, and ends with this harsh statement:
“… the land will not have atonement for the blood that was spilled in it, except through the blood of the one who spilled it.”
The Torah had already expounded on the gravity of the transgression of murder at several occasions. It is discussed in Parshat Noah, and the prohibition of murder is part of the Ten Commandments. If so, why must the Torah continue discussing this, and at such great length?
A moral society doesn’t need to be lectured on why murder is wrong. Why, then, does the Torah deem it necessary to revisit the subject, and at the gateway to the Land of Israel, of all places?
The Torah seems to be teaching a crucial lesson here. The Jewish People’s entry into the Land of Israel would be an event marked by wars, which naturally tend to devalue human life. The combatants grow used to the brutal images they see, and this can lead to a deluded society that views the loss of human life as something that isn’t tragic, since these kinds of things have already happened, and members of that society have encountered death time and time again.
This is precisely why the Torah repeats its warning on the value of human life. We aren’t pacifists. We don’t claim to be ethical by turning the other cheek. We are, however, fanatically protective of the lives of the innocent. This holds true when it comes to pedestrians crossing the street, and it should also apply to all aspects of our lives.
It goes without saying that we need to be tough on those who commit premeditated murder, though such people are a negligible minority within civilized society. However, when it comes to people who kill inadvertently, there always seems to be an excuse: “I didn’t mean to… I made a mistake… I misjudged the distance…”. And because this claim is so human, so understandable, we need to plan ahead and prevent such claims from permeating our society and leading to a disregard for the dignity and importance of human life.
This is a dangerous claim, but not because we can’t make mistakes. We are all human beings, and we all make mistakes – this goes without saying. However, if a driver knows that a mistake caused by negligence could cause immeasurable pain and suffering to a victim’s family, the driver might change the way he or she drives. People who understand how much suffering they would cause by being careless at the beach might take extra precautions when swimming – and insist on swimming only where it is allowed and appropriate.
This portion is always read during the “Three Weeks” between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and Tisha B’av, which is known for being a calamitous time. On the one hand, our ancestors suffered from terrible national tragedies throughout Jewish history. On the other, in modern times, this period also falls in the middle of summer vacation, and leads to a different kind of tragedy – the personal tragedies that young people on holiday might bring upon themselves.
One young man, who was a friend of my son’s, and incidentally, a very nice person, told me how he had inadvertently put himself in a very precarious situation. He was climbing a cliff, without any preparation, and only the slightest misstep could have led to his certain death. We often hear about travelers who wind up in dangerous situations like these – the product of a lack of foresight.
Those who heed the lessons at the end of Bamidbar, and are fully cognizant of the tremendous value of human life (both theirs and the lives of others), will always remember their duty to painstakingly avoid harming others, whether inadvertently or otherwise.
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