Parashat Masei

Protecting The Sacredness Of Life

The laws of the Cities of Refuge emphasize the sacredness and infinite value of every human life.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

In this parashah, God directs Moses to set aside cities "to serve...as cities of refuge to which a killer who has killed a person unintentionally may flee" (Numbers 35:11). The Torah distinguishes between intentional murder and accidental killing. The former is punishable by death and the sentence is carried out by the victim's closest relative.

When death is accidental, the killer may seek protection in the city of refuge; if he leaves the city, the deceased's relative may kill him with impunity. The Israelites are told, "You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land...in which I Myself abide" (35:33ff.). God cannot dwell in a land defiled.

If blood defiles the land, why distinguish between intentional and accidental homicide? If blood is a pollutant, why allow capital punishment? If one who kills accidentally is spared capital punishment and may flee to a city of refuge, why may the victim's relative kill him if he leaves the city? Why does the Torah forbid monetary compensation in the case of murder, insisting that the killer be executed?

Whether or not we agree with the penalties set here, it is clear that several values are at work. The Torah values human life. To kill intentionally is to deny another's humanness; perhaps the Torah believes that in doing so the murderer has hopelessly compromised his own humanity. Murder is an outrageous crime; to accept monetary compensation would be to place a fixed value on that which is priceless. In the case of accidental death, the community may protect the killer, but the gravity of his act must be recognized through exile.

The Torah cannot prevent human beings from killing each other. It reminds us, however, that each human life has infinite value and that no life can be taken without consequences.

Dvora Weisberg

Dvora Weisberg is Associate Professor of Rabbinics and Director of the Beit Midrash at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.