The Stuff of Real Life
This week's Torah portion concludes with an overview of the Jewish nation's
wanderings in the wilderness, as well as key laws and preparations
associated with their inheriting the land. Moshe Rabbeinu designated six
Levite cities, three in Eretz Yisrael and three in Trans-Jordan, as cities
of refuge where an accidental murderer can escape an avenger from the
Although his act of homicide was not premeditated, the Torah considers him
culpable for being negligent, and not adequately protecting another's life.
The time he spends in the Ir Miklat will enable him to realign his values
and correct the habits that led to his negligent behavior. The Levite city
was the ideal place to achieve this rehabilitation. The Levites were
landless and wholly devoted to teaching and guiding their fellow Jews. Even
while in Egypt, the Levites were preoccupied with spiritual advancement, and
distanced themselves from the pursuit of material prosperity.
Their conduct was emblematic of the highest degree of moral responsibility.
Living among people of this caliber would re-educate and sensitize the
murderer to the supreme sanctity of human life.
The Talmud asks why were there precisely the exact number of "refuge" cities
in Trans Jordan as there were in Israel? After all, Trans Jordan was only
home to two and a half tribes, while the remaining nine lived in Israel. Why
not distribute the cities of refuge in a way that would more accurately
reflect the demographics?
The Talmud answers that in Trans Jordan there were more homicides and the
population's sensitivity to human life became diminished. The likelihood of
accidental murder was therefore greater. The average citizen was less
conscious of the need to exert himself to the utmost to protect his fellow
Jew; he would be more likely to pursue his own needs at the expense of his
The great sage R' Itzel of Volozhin offers a different interpretation of the
Talmud's assertion that bloodshed was more prevalent in Trans-Jordan, thus
requiring more cities of refuge in that region. The problem, he explains,
lay not in the higher incidences of accidental homicide in Trans-Jordan but
in the over-eagerness to avenge it. Since the inhabitants of Ever HaYarden
were less sensitive to murder, it was far more likely that an accidental
killer would be pursued by a family member driven to exact vengeance for
unsavory reasons. The Torah therefore provided the perpetrator with more
immediate access to an Ir Miklat.
The culture of tolerance toward bloodshed would delude people into thinking
they were motivated by moral principles in trying to avenge their relative's
death, when all too often they were simply trying to even the score with a
hapless fellow Jew.
The underlying message of the portion is that nothing affects our mindset
and value system more than our social environment. We are all conditioned by
repeated and constant exposure to the prevailing culture. Harmful outside
influences can easily pollute our ability to distinguish right from wrong
and can easily desensitize us from appreciating the value and sanctity of
every humans life.
This underscores the importance of ensuring that our homes are bastions of
light, joy and an appreciation for the kedusha of Klal Yisroel. These values
must permeate the atmosphere to the point where they are imprinted on the
minds and hearts of our children. Only by building our homes according to
the Torah's blueprint can we turn them into lighthouses of positive energy.
They will thus become the miniature 'cities of refuge' that will protect
ourselves and our families from the steady onslaught of moral decay and
corruption in the surrounding culture.
Wishing you a wonderful Shabbos
Rabbi Naftali Reich
Text Copyright © 2014 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.