Parshios Matos & Masei
The Accidental Murderer
He told the police it was an accident. He had never intended to kill or hurt
anyone; it was the farthest thing for his mind. All he wanted was some wood
for his fireplace because it was so cold outside. He had taken his axe and
gone out to chop wood. Little did he know that the blade was a little loose.
Little did he know that the blade would fly off when he lifted the axe high
over his head and brought it down with all his might. Little did he know
that the blade would whiz through the air like an arrow and lodge in the
heart of an innocent passerby. It was such a shock, and he was so sorry. But
what was he to do? It was just an unfortunate accident.
So what does the Torah tell us about such a man? How are the courts to deal
with him? Should we just shake their heads sadly and move on? Or should he
have to suffer consequences?
The Torah tells us that such an accidental "murderer" is to be banished for
life to one of the six Cities of Refuge, specifically designated safe havens
that protect him from reprisals by his victim's relatives. Only if the
Kohein Gadol, the High Priest, should pass away during the period of his
confinement may he go free.
How are we to understand this law? After all, what did this hapless fellow
do already? He had not intended to kill anyone. He had not even known that
anyone was in the vicinity. He had just swung the axe with perfectly
innocent intentions, and the blade had flown off and killed someone. Should
his whole life be ruined for such a small thing? Does he deserve to be
banished for the rest of his days?
Furthermore, why should his banishment depend on the survival of the High
Priest? Why should he be put in a position that almost forces him to pray
for the death of the blameless High Priest?
The commentators explain that the human mind is extremely intricate and
complex. People often do or say things for reasons they themselves cannot
even fathom. Deep in their subconscious, they may harbor long forgotten
resentments or insensitivities that still trigger negative actions and
The Torah expects us to root out these hidden malignant tendencies. The
Torah expects us to probe, purify and cleanse our souls. If a person can
wield a defective lethal weapon in the open, there is something wrong with
him. Somewhere deep inside, he has a callous disregard the safety of human
life and limb. For if he really cared, he would have lifted that axe as if
it were a flaming torch. He would have inspected it carefully and looked
around to make sure the coast was clear before swinging it.
That is why the Torah describes him as a "murderer." In a sense, he really
is a murderer. That is also why the Torah makes his confinement dependent on
the survival of the High Priest. When this "murderer" finds himself praying
for the death of the High Priest, the epitome of innocence, he will finally
come face to face with his dark side. He will realize that he really does
have homicidal tendencies. Only then can the process of self-appraisal,
introspection and rehabilitation begin.
A student came into his dormitory late at night. He closed the door
behind him, and the door slammed shut with a loud bang. The student turned
around, and there stood the headmaster glaring at him with disapproval.
"How can you slam doors in the dormitory so late at night?" he asked.
"Doesn't it mean anything to you that people are fast asleep? Don't you care
about other people?"
"Of course I do, sir. I certainly didn't want to slam the door and make
noise. I just closed the door, and it slammed shut. It wasn't my fault."
"Tell me, my young friend," said the headmaster, "if your ailing father had
been sleeping in one of this rooms, do you think the door would have slammed
The student fidgeted. "I don't think so," he admitted.
"I don't think so either," said the headmaster. "When you really care, the
door closes gently."
In our own lives, we are driven by so many complex and varied motives. The
lesson of the accidental murderer teaches us to probe and examine even our
seemingly altruistic actions and seek the hidden motives. If we discover
that the motives are indeed pure, we can be sure that the actions are
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.