Masei: Slowing Our Anger

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Masei

This week’s portion, Masei, describes the places that the Israelites
camped on their way to the Land, and concludes with the laws of the
“cities of refuge,” which were to be established once they actually
settled there. These cities were places where people who had committed
accidental manslaughter could flee and be safe from blood avengers
from the victim’s family. However, the ancient rabbis learn an
important detail from a verse which at first seems to merely recap the
main ideas:

“The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the
manslayer may not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly.”
(Bamidbar/ Numbers 35:12)

According to Sefer HaHinnuch, a textbook of the commandments, this
verse teaches us that no person could be put to death unless they had
the benefit of a proper trial. Even if a crowd of people had seen the
crime, nobody was to receive punishment unless all exonerating
circumstances and laws had been considered by wise and dispassionate
judges.

On a social level, this understanding fits well with the Torah’s
overall ideas of justice, which require deliberation and fairness to
enact. Yet on a more personal level, we could understand this mitzvah-
not to punish without trial- as teaching us to quiet our anger and
seek to understand all sides in a conflict. Anger is easy and leads to
thoughts (or actions) of vengeance, but revenge always presumes that
the avenger is totally right- whereas in most situations of conflict,
a bit of humility leads to the desire to understand the situation from
all perspectives.

That is, we ought not punish someone before the “trial,” or the
conversation in which we hope to see the best in others, if at all
possible, and strive for the as much reconciliation as we can. This is
not easy, but it does bring more understanding into the world, which,
with grace, brings about forgiving where otherwise there might be anger.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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