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לחצו כאן לעברית
Do you feel the end rushing toward us? Do you feel the crack in the door opening onto a new beginning? You should in this parsha. The desert trek is ending, and with it Moshe’s role, and entry into the land is now a stone’s throw away. Moshe has finished his rhetorical historical review for the most part and is now rattling off laws and commandments to apply when the Israelites enter the country. We will focus on the subject that opens and closes our parsha: justice.
Even a strong judicial system has weak spots, like the time between the commission of an act and the final verdict as to whether that act constituted a crime. The most extreme case is homicide, where the question is whether the perpetrator (to use TV series terminology) is guilty of murder or of unpremeditated homicide.
This was of even greater importance then than now, because one who caused the death of another could legally be killed by a member of the deceased’s family. Blood redemption it was called. The only hope for safety for a perp who was found not guilty of murder was in the cities of refuge.
We encountered cities of refuge earlier in the Torah. But here, Moshe makes an important addition. Taking into account the potential expansion of the country, he increases the number of cities from three to six, giving those fleeing the blood redeemer a better chance of reaching a city of refuge alive.
Incidentally, the rabbis constructed a beautiful midrash on the subject. The period of refuge in the cities ended with the death of the high priest at that time, after which the murderers could return home without fear of the blood redeemer. It’s only natural that many of the refugees (that’s what they were!) might therefore have wished and prayed fervently for the death of the high priest, and the sooner the better. Therefore, the midrash relates, the high priest’s mother and family would bring gourmet food to the refugees, to make their lives in the cities so comfortable that they wouldn’t want to return home so fast and wouldn’t curse the high priest!
We also read about witnesses in court cases. One witness is not enough to convict a person. Two or three are needed. And not only do they give testimony. The judges are directed to cross-examine them well, to make sure they are telling the truth. If a witness is found to be lying, you shall do unto him what he intended to do to the defendant. Because this is a perversion of justice that must be eradicated.
After a long explanation about preparations for war, including who is exempt from fighting (men who had bought a new field, built a new house or were engaged to be married – but had not planted the field, lived in the house nor married their fiancée, and also those who were simply afraid to fight), we return to murkier issue of justice.
A dead body has been found outside the jurisdiction of all the adjacent cities, nobody knows who killed him. The elders of the closest city (by actual measurement) have to undergo a ceremony of literally and figuratively washing their hands of the murder – in effect saying they did not do it and they did not know anyone in their city who did it. The purpose was to atone for the innocent blood that had been shed.
But why are the elders or the city residents responsible at all? Because, the Talmud explains, they should have given the person who was killed, a stranger, a place to stay in their city, or they should have accompanied him to the next city to ensure his safety. They evidently didn’t do either, he was accosted by highwaymen and killed. Therefore, they bear responsibility.
The overarching idea of these laws is that we are responsible for what happens, that sins of omission can be as deadly as sins of commission, and that we should all have each other’s back – and not for putting a knife into it!