Parshas Mas’ei – A Historic Killing’s Echo
One of the most – if not the most – confounding laws in the Torah is that of the go’el hadam, the relative of someone who was accidentally killed, who is permitted (in some opinions commanded) to pursue the unfortunate killer and dispatch him.
So much to unpack here. Personal revenge is far from a Jewish concept. In fact, the Torah unequivocally forbids it in all other situations: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against those of your people” (Vayikra 19:18). Why the exception here? And when the offense being avenged wasn’t even intentional? That would seem to violate even common sense.
Adding to the oddity of the go’el hadam law is the fact that the pursued can find safe haven in any of the “cities of refuge”– six designated ones plus another 42 Levi’im cities that also provide the accidental killer a safe base, where the pursuer has no right to harm him.
Sefer Devarim is called Mishneh Torah – a “review of the Torah.” Although it does contain laws not found earlier, it is, in some sense, an “addendum” to the prior four sefarim. Which would make Bamidbar, at least in a way, the final sefer of the Torah, its conclusion.
The Torah begins its account of human history with a killing, an exile and a protection. Kayin killed his brother, but no one had ever been killed before, so he may be considered a shogeg, an “accidental” killer, even if he intended violence. Or even his intentional act, by bringing killing into the world, may have been what “allowed” for accidental death at the hands of humans.
And Kayin was a bechor, a first-born, whose role the Levi’im come in time to replace. After his act, Kayin is forced to wander, bereft of a territory. The Levi’im, the assumers of the bechor-role, are also deprived of a tribal section of Eretz Yisrael. Instead, they are to dwell in designated cities. To which a killer-by-accident can find refuge. Cities force people to interact interpersonally. An antidote, perhaps, to the Kayin-attitude of “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
There is much more to explore here, but let it suffice it to say that the elements of the first killing in history seem to echo in the law of go’el hadam at the “end” of the Torah. Might the law’s import be not in its actual use but rather (as various tannaim hold in the cases of the bayis hamenuga, ir hanidachas and ben sorer u’moreh – see Sanhedrin 71a)) on another level?
Certainly worth deeper thought.
© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran
My most recent Ami column, “Mussar in the Sky,” can be read here.