Thursday, July 28, 2011

Masei

The news is filled with murder and violence.  Our city recently witnessed the grotesque murder of an eight year old Hasidic boy.  Last week Norway was savaged by mass murder.  Yesterday in Iraq twelve were murdered in a double bombing outside a bank.  Against these painful images we recently watched as Casey Anthony was acquitted of the murder of her baby daughter.

Such killing is not new to society.  The Torah offers great detail about how to approach murder and killing.  In fact this week’s Torah portion, Masei, suggests several important details.  Premeditated murder for example is a capital crime punishable by death. 

Intent is determined by the weapon used.  “Anyone who strikes another with an iron object so that death results is a murderer.”  Anger and hatred as well suggests premeditation.  “So, too, if he pushed him in hate or hurled something at him on purpose and death resulted…” (Numbers 35:16-21)  However two witnesses must publicly testify against the accused in order to exact the punishment of death.  The Torah’s concern is twofold.  Its foremost concern is not first of all punishment but justice.

It is also concerned that the land not become defiled by murder.  The ancients (perhaps we would do well to find meaning in their idea) believed that God’s presence cannot dwell in a land contaminated by murder.  Illustrating this point is the law of cities of refuge.  If a person accidentally killed another he may run to a city of refuge.  There he could find sanctuary preventing the family member of the killed from seeking vengeance.  “You shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge 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.” (Numbers 35-9-12)

It is a fascinating law.  Apparently the establishment of these cities helped to maintain the holiness of the land.  The land would therefore not be defiled twice over, by the spilling of blood in vengeance in addition to the blood of the killed.  Most important the cities of refuge allow justice to be served.  Anger and vengeance must never rule our decisions—even and perhaps especially in the case of murder.  Today, we are understandably angry and desire punishment. 

Yet justice must be given time.  Although murderers act in anger we must not do the same.  There is the danger that in the pursuit of justice we may become as well murderers if we are not careful and deliberate.  Only time can guarantee that we do not also become guilty.  The cities of refuge seek to establish this balance.  They allow for the gathering of information.  They allow for deliberate thought.  They allow for justice to emerge.  

Yet today I feel as if justified anger overwhelms my concern for justice.  The Hasidic Gerrer Rebbe (1799-1866) responds.  “In theory, a person who killed another, even if only through negligence, does not deserve a place anywhere, because a person who killed has no place in God’s world.  That is why special places had to be set aside where killers could remain.”

In theory there should be no place on earth for someone who takes another life.  All human beings are created in the divine image.  The Talmud reminds us: “To destroy a life is to destroy a world.”  Even a city a refuge therefore seems an unjust refuge.

And so I am left with only one simple prayer.  May there come a day, even one day, and then perhaps many days, when we no longer read of violence and murder.

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