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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.