Massei: Refuge from Revenge

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Massei

Greetings from not-too-scalding Swampscott; it seems that I had
the good fortune to miss the worst of the heat wave on the East
Coast. I’m back on the North Shore for a few more weeks, during
which it’s my privilege to provide some Torah for midsummer

The portion Massei is the final parsha of the book of Bamidbar/
Numbers; it is usually read with the preceding portion, but not
this year. It begins with a long list of all the places the Israelites
camped during their 40 year journey, and then describes the
borders of the Land of Israel, which the Israelites will soon
inhabit. The Israelites must designate “cities of refuge” for those
who cause accidental death, and the parsha concludes with a
revisiting of inheritance laws.

In chapter 35, there is an extensive explanation of the “cities of
refuge”, which begins:

“The Lord spoke to Moses saying: ‘Speak to the children of Israel
and say to them: When you cross the Jordan to the land of
Canaan, you shall designate cities for yourselves; they shall be
cities of refuge for you, and a person who unintentionally killed
shall flee there.’ ” (Bamidbar/Numbers 35:9-11)

The rest of the chapter describes the precise conditions under
which someone might end up in one of the cities of refuge, but
the basic idea is that if somebody killed a person by accident
(what we call manslaughter), they should be allowed to live in a
safe city, and may not be sought out for revenge by the victim’s
family. On the other hand, it was also forbidden to allow a real
murderer to escape; the Torah prescribes capital punishment for
premeditated murder, though the later rabbinic tradition strongly
circumscribed the conditions under which it could be enacted.

The ethical ideal of the cities of refuge is as relevant today as it
was in Biblical times: punishment must be proportional, and any
judgment requires careful discrimination between differing sets
of circumstances. Intentions matter; human beings make
mistakes, and the one who makes a tragic error is not to be held
liable in the same way as one who harms out of hate or evil.

Yet this idea- that we must carefully consider a person’s
intentions and all the mitigating circumstances when judging an
action- is not just a judicial principle; it is essential to spiritual
growth. Think for a minute about the situation that the Torah
proposes: someone is accidentally killed, and the responsibility
of the community is to protect the killer from those who would
quite naturally seek revenge or blood-redemption. Passions
must be cooled with reflection and thoughtful investigation.

In other words, precisely at a moment of tremendous stress for
the entire community, when emotions are running high and the
temptation is great to take action against the one who caused
harm- that is when the Torah tells us to slow down, think clearly,
investigate the circumstances, step back from the brink, and not
allow tragedy to be compounded.

Friends, what is true for the accidental killer is even more true for
those people we interact with every day: they deserve not to be
the victims of harsh judgments and hasty reactions when
emotions are running high. People hurt each other; they make
mistakes; they act carelessly; they cause pain and distress- but
they are usually not seeking to intentionally harm (and if they are,
it’s often because of their own pain and struggle).

The Torah asks us to step back from the ordinary emotions of
hurt and revenge and seek clarity about what is fair and right;
sometimes the path towards right relationship must be cleared
by taking time to just think things out. Blood for blood (or insult
for insult, or sarcasm for sarcasm, or emotional manipulation for
emotional manipulation) may be the way of strictest justice, but it
is not the way of God, Who demands that we rise above our
quickest and basest instincts.

This is not to say that actions don’t have consequences; after all,
the accidental killer was still sent away from his home town to
the City of Refuge, where he might have to spend many years.
Yet the Torah’s greater principle is clear: rather than give in to
destructive impulses for revenge and retribution, we must see
the humanity even in those who cause harm- a category which
includes all of us at one time or another. Humans are terribly
imperfect, but we may love each other nonetheless.

shabbat shalom,


You may read the full text and find additional commentaries on
Massei here:

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