For this week’s Parsha Discussion, we will deal with how society deals with murder and the place of taking life in our societies.
Our parsha legislates Refuge Cities, “to which a manslayer who has killed a person unintentionally may flee. 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.”
It seems quite primitive. The relatives of the murdered man can avenge his blood in a vigilante killing. Where are the courts? The police? Does the Torah really want manic manhunts throughout the countryside of Canaan as “avengers” hotly pursue the person they suspect of killing their relative? Can ordinary citizens be allowed to take the law into their own hands?
Moreover, the Torah sets up a “cat and mouse” situation, granting the avenger a license to kill, but then creating a safe-zone to protect the perpetrator?
Shadal (R. Shmuel David Luzzato) has a fascinating perspective:
In ancient times, before peoples were organized under a king, ministers, judges and officers, every family took revenge against other families, and the closest relative of the dead was responsible to avenge his death. The Torah established judges and officers and transferred the responsibilities of avenging [a murder] from ordinary citizens to the authorities.
Now, in a situation of deliberate murder, it was possible to mollify the avenger by telling him to leave it to the judges to investigate and execute the killer if found guilty of murder. However, when the killing was unintentional [and the killer was not to be executed], it was impossible to placate the avenger and have him look on as the individual who killed his father or brother remain unpunished. He and his acquaintances would interpret this [inaction] to be proof that he does not love his father or brother, since he does not avenge their death.
Since it was impossible to totally uproot this mindset [that lack of vengeance implied a lack of care]. The divine wisdom knew that … it could not prevent all or even most of the avengers from avenging the death of their relatives...Therefore, it left the avenger the right to avenge the killing of his kin but designated places of refuge where the [unintentional] killer could seek protection and in which the avenger is unable to kill him
In other words, in a culture of “honor killings” one cannot fight the culture but one may protect the murderer. This the Torah legislates that the inadvertent murderer gain a fair trial in the Refuge City and remain there in safety.
So, the Torah didn’t “invent” the idea of the “blood avenger”. It was part of society prior to the Torah. (Just like the Torah didn’t invent Yibum, or 7 days of feasting around a wedding etc. all these exist in the near-Eastern non-Israelite societies, independent of the Torah.) The Torah just channels it.
One might say that the Torah takes a hot-headed, tribal mentality and tries to instil a legal, lawful system, within the existent culture.
One last point. What about the person who has killed accidentally? If, God forbid, someone killed somebody in a car accident, or a similar situation. How do they live with the guilt? The Refuge City addresses that as well.
Killing is the most severe of all offences for in it lies the destruction of the world … It is therefore proper for one who killed even unintentionally, because he directly caused great tragedy, that he should suffer the anguish of exile which is almost equal to the anguish of death, since a man is then separated from his friends and his native soil. (Sefer Hachinuch)
The Refuge City keeps a manslaughter safe. But it also assists that individual in dealing with the guilt of taking the life of another. One might go further. Murder is such a fundamental offence that even if one bears no direct responsibility, life cannot merely continue, society cannot remain the same. This should create a sense of trauma. The Torah sees murder as so severe that the land itself is defiled.
In our parsha, “You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land” (35:33). This is reminiscent of the first murder ever, Cain and Abel, where “the sound of your brothers blood is screaming to your from the earth.”
If the victim disappears from our streets, maybe the perpetrator also needs to experience a jolt, even if for a short while. And we all need to experience a jolt
Why do we see disgruntled people going to shoot up a bar or a school? How can we deepen our sense of abhorrence at murder? Have we returned to a culture of “blood avenger” of sorts?
Are we desensitised to murder? Every day we read about another murder in the newspaper. Moreover, think about how much violence and life-taking we see on TV. Does it desensitise us? Does it desensitise society?