Massei 5759. The Vigilante, and Value of a Life


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..."

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 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?

Stranger still, the Torah appears to set up a “cat and mouse” situation, granting the avenger a license to kill on the one hand, but then creating a safe-zone to protect the perpetrator?

Shadal (R. Shmuel David Luzzato) offers an intriguing 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.

Regarding 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 [because 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 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 instill 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 manslaughterer 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, neither individual nor society cannot remain the same. This must 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 or possibly the perpetrator needs to assuage his guilt.

Please discuss:

  • Why does it seem that a disgruntled person going to shoot up a bar or a school has become a de riguer news story? How can we deepen our sense of abhorrence at murder?

  • 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 de-sensitise us? Does it de-sensitise society?

  • Imagine a person who accidentally murdered someone, in a car accident or the like? Possibly a tyre blew out on a car and through no fault of theirs they caused someone's death. How does a person deal with that guilt? How can a person move forward?


Shabbat Shalom!

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