Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
An Ounce of Prevention
This week's parsha goes through the process and laws of an
accidental murder. The difference in this between Jewish law and
contemporary law is immediately apparent: In contemporary law there
is no law relating to an accidental murder. To be sure, one must
prove that the murder was accidental (the same is true in Jewish law),
but once this point has been proven, the killer is free - he bears no
further responsibility for what he has done.
Jewish law is not so quick to absolve the murderer. Although he is
spared the death penalty (which is given to intentional murderers), he
is punished. He must be exiled from where he lives to one of the
designated Arei Miklat (Cities of Refuge), where he must remain until
the death of the present Kohen Gadol (High Priest).
The Torah, it appears, requires us to take responsibility for everything
we do. Even accidental mishaps are not without blame. He could
have been more careful. He could have taken more precautions. A
small mistake, with grave consequences - and he must take
responsibility. We must give serious consideration to all our actions.
(The example which the Torah gives for an accidental murder is, "But
if with suddenness, without anger, did he push him, or throw upon
him a vessel... and he died. (35:22-23)" The murderer accidentally
pushed the victim to his death, or the hammer which he was using
flew out of his hands and hit the victim, mortally wounding him.
These are cases where some degree of negligence, however slight, is
found. If the murder could be classified as "ones", totally
circumstantial and blameless, then the killer is in fact absolved from
Many times, out of pre-occupation with other responsibilities, or in
haste, we do things that are not well thought-out. We're in a rush, so
we throw the kids in the car without seatbelts. We drive long
distances, even though we know we're really too tired to do so. We
don't take proper precautions when working with tools or utensils
around the house. We let kids do things and go places without
sufficient supervision. We don't clear the ice from our walkway. These
are all little, insignificant things which we do every day, without giving
them much thought - May Hashem protect us. Maybe though, we
should stop sometimes and think about the awesome responsibility
we have for the safety of others. The Torah does not take negligence,
however slight, lightly. Neither should we.
This motif of taking responsibility for the well-being of others
continues in the parsha. The accidental murderer is to remain in the
City of Refuge until the death of the Kohen Gadol. Why? This is seen
by the Talmud as a sort of punishment for the Kohen Gadol. Since
the murderer remains in exile as long as he lives, the Kohen Gadol
must constantly cope with the uncomfortable feeling that there is
someone out there who would rather he be dead. So much so, says
the Talmud, that the mother of the Kohen Gadol would bring food
to the exiled, so that out of appreciation, he would refrain from
praying for her son's death.
Yet why is the Kohen Gadol being punished? What has he done
wrong? Thus questions the Talmud (Makos 11a). Because, answers
the Talmud, he should have prayed that no accidental deaths occur
during his tenure. The Kohen Gadol is held personally accountable
for any death which occurred in his term . Actually, what the Gemara
says is, "He should have prayed for his generation, and he didn't!"
The fact that such a mishap occurred at all is seen by the Gemara
as proof that the Kohen Gadol did not pray (enough) for Divine
compassion on behalf of his generation. Had he prayed,this could
not have happened!
The Mishna (ibid 11b) says that in the case where a new Kohen
Gadol was anointed after the murder took place but before the end
of the trial, the murderer must remain in the City of Refuge until the
death of the new Kohen Gadol. Why? questions the Gemara. What
has he done wrong? He should have prayed that the Beis Din (Jewish
Court) acquit the defendant. Since he was convicted, it is obvious that
he did not pray for him, and he too deserves to be "punished".
Why didn't the Gemara simply answer that he should also have
prayed for the wellbeing of his generation? Evidently, to have one's
generation in mind, and to pray for circumstances which have yet to
occur, is the realm and responsibility of the generation's leaders. Not
everyone can be expected to have such foresight and thoughtfulness.
But to pray for someone whose circumstances and plight are known
is the responsibility of all. Even the newly appointed Kohen Gadol is
reprimanded for his lack of awareness and affirmative action on
behalf of a fellow Jew.
There are, to be sure, other salient points to this Gemara. For one,
the fact that the Gemara feels it appropriate and incumbent to pray
for the accused's acquittal, nonwithstanding his alleged negligence.
Also, the fact that the prayers of the exiled for the Kohen Gadol's
death, if spoken, would seemingly be answered. Certainly, though, we
see the extreme importance the Torah attaches to our taking
responsibility for the well-being of others, through our deeds and
through our prayers.
Text Copyright © 1998 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.