Divrei Torah

PARSHIOS MATOS-MASEI 5776

Towards the end of this week’s second Parsha, the Torah delineates the rules of the cities of refuge. If a person mistakenly killed another person, e.g. he was trying to shoot a deer and aimed incorrectly – a relative of the victim might want to exact revenge against the perpetrater of the manslaughter. The one who commited the crime would run to the city of refuge. The city of refuge served as a safe haven for him. He was then tried for his crime. If he was convicted of his mistaken crime, he was sentenced to the city of refuge, where he would remain until the death of the Kohein Gadol – the High Priest. He was not permitted to leave under any circumstances. Once the Kohein Gadol died, the manslaughter’s sentence was complete and he was free to return home.

There were six major cities of refuge – three on each side of the Jordan River. The Talmud questions this alottment because it was not proportional to the population. There were only 2 & ½ tribes east of the Jordan River, while there were 9 & ½ tribes in Israel proper. The Talmud explains that there was more crime in modern day Jordan, so they needed more cities of refuge there. 

The Talmud also notes that the cities of refuge were bunched towards the middle of the country and that Shechem was one of those cities. Once again, the Talmud notes that crime was rampant in Shechem – a fact that has not changed since the time of our forefather Ya’akov. This seems to be a difficult statement. Would it not seem more logical to have the cities of refuge away from a center of crime, especially since the cities of refuge dealt with unintentional as opposed to premeditated crime? 

The Torah is teaching us an idea that the Rabbis reiterated in the Talmud. Crime begets crime, even unintentional crime. It becomes a part of the society and the society almost becomes immune to it. 

The Talmud teaches us that the death penalty was rarely administered by the Sanhedrin – the High Court that tried capital cases. In addition, forty years before the destruction of the 2nd Bais Hamikdash, the Sanhedrin stopped trying capital cases because crime was out of hand. The view of the Torah is that the death penalty must be on the books in order that people will have a fear of committing a capital offense. However, administering the death penalty – especially on a regular basis – will not lower the crime rate. If anything, it will increase the crime rate. Violence - even justified - begets violence. As the Rabbis stated, just as the performance of a mitzva encourages more mitzvos, the act of a sin encourages additional acts of sin.