Parshat Masei is the last in the Book of Numbers, the fourth of the five books of the Torah.
It deals with the summary of Am Yisrael’s journeys in the desert from Egypt to the eastern border of Eretz Yisrael – the Promised Land. It also deals with the plan for dividing the land among the different segments of the nation, including six “arei miklat,” cities of refuge, meant for those who committed murder by mistake.
“Arei miklat” are a unique solution for a man who killed another unintentionally. The classic example in the Bible describes a man who threw a stone to a great distance and did not notice a man passing by. The stone hits the passing man and kills him. Nowadays, such a case would have been called “causing death by negligence.”
According to the laws of the Torah, the stone-thrower is severely sentenced and his punishment is exile: He must leave his home, his family and his business, and move for a time to a “city of refuge.” This exile – which greatly resembles house arrest – is meant to atone for the sin of the killing on the one hand and to protect the killer from revenge by the family of the victim on the other.
We must note, however, that the Torah’s attitude toward the killing is different from its attitude to any other transgression. With all other transgressions, a man who inadvertently sins as a result of negligence is not punished at all. When the Temple stood, a person was obligated to bring a sacrifice to atone for the sin, but the sacrifice was not defined as a punishment but as atonement. The attitude toward murder, however, is vastly different, and even when the homicide is unintentional, the killer must be punished.
Furthermore, the punishment of exile to a city of refuge is given to a killer even when the death was caused with very little involvement, as opposed to other transgressions. For example, a man who leans on a wall on Shabbat and does not notice that he leaned on a light switch and unintentionally turned on the light is not considered a “shogeg,” one who sinned unintentionally, but rather a “mitasek”, someone who was engaged in something, meaning, it was an action that took place while being engaged in another activity. This sort of act does not require any atonement since the person was not aware of his actions. A man leaning on the wall, however, who unintentionally loosens a stone that falls and kills another person, is punished with exile to a city of refuge, though here, too, he was unaware of his actions.
The difference in attitude to killing as opposed to other transgressions can be explained by the huge value Judaism places on human life. This value is expressed by the well-known rule that “Piku’ach nefesh [saving human life] supersedes the entire Torah” and even “Possible life-saving supersedes the entire Torah.” The practical ramifications of this rule are far-reaching, as in the following example: If someone is very sick, and we know that we might succeed in extending his life by only a few minutes after which he will die, we still must do everything we can – including desecrating Shabbat or Yom Kippur – to extend his life by several minutes. Indeed, one minute of life is more important than all the mitzvot of the Torah. It is important to internalize this issue, especially now, when shortening the lives of terminally ill patients is being discussed.
The limitless value of human life in Judaism leads us to an understanding of the difference between killing and any other transgression. In every other area with which the Torah deals, man has to carry out a certain action or avoid it. When dealing with human life, however, man does not have to merely avoid killing or try saving a life, but he must be careful with anything that might endanger a human life. Therefore, even if a person did not intend to kill someone, the mere fact that he caused the death is evidence of his carelessness, and for this he is punished.
This understanding is made practical for every person, every day. For example, a man who breaks the law driving while speaking on his cellular phone, even if no one was hurt, is being careless. Being careless, in and of itself, is against the values of the Torah. The section on cities of refuge teaches us that carelessness when it comes to human life is a sin, not only when the results are tragic, but even if no actual harm comes to anyone.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.