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Sensitivity towards Human Life

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein
In loving memory of Yaakov Ben Yitzchak Fred Stone z"l,
beloved father and grandfather whose yartzeit is the 25 Tammuz
Stanley & Ellen Stone and their children, Jake & Chaya, Micah & Adline,
Zack & Yael, Allie and Issac, Ezra & Talia, Shai, Yoni & Caylay,
Azzi, Eliana & Marc, Adina, Emunah, Shira,and Gabi & Talia


Adapted by Immanuel Mayer

Translated by Kaeren Fish


I. Revenge on Midian

Near the beginning of parashat Matot, God commands Moshe: “Execute the vengeance of Bnei Yisrael on the Midianites; afterwards, you shall be gathered to your people” (31:2). This formulation would seem to indicate that it is Moshe who must “execute the vengeance of Bnei Yisrael” on Midian. It is he who must lead the people in battle. After completing this mission, his role in the world will come to an end, and he will be gathered to his people.

Why is it important that Moshe himself undertake this mission? On the simplest level it seems that Moshe must make amends for his actions at the time of the sin of Ba’al Pe’or. When the Midianite women entered the Israelite camp, Moshe wept at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. It was Pinchas who took the initiative, acting to put an end to the debacle. Moshe needs to repair that lapse of passivity through positive action, by leading the nation in battle against Midian.

However, there is a more fundamental reason why it is specifically Moshe who must take the lead. The Torah commands us, in parashat Kedoshim (Vayikra 19:18), “You shall not avenge, nor bear a grudge.” Revenge can emerge from a positive place – the desire for justice, repair, and a restoring of the proper order. However, it may also be prompted by a base desire to “repay the other side with what they deserve” and not to “allow the other side an advantage.”

As Bnei Yisrael stand on the brink of war against Midian, they cannot be certain that their motives are pure. Are they fighting in order to fulfill God’s command, or are they giving vent to their anger and bitterness over thousands of Israelite deaths caused by Midian?

Moshe’s personal leadership comes to assuage that doubt. His command of the fighting forces symbolizes the fact that the people’s motives are pure.

It is interesting that at a certain point even the symbolic weight of Moshe’s leadership is not sufficient for the Israelite army: the army finds itself unable to kill the Midianite women, and Moshe needs to urge them to complete their mission:

“And Bnei Yisrael took all the women of Midian captives, and their children, and they took the spoil of all their cattle and all their flocks, and all their goods… And Moshe was angry with the officers of the host, the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, who came from the battle. And Moshe said to them, Have you saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused Bnei Yisrael, through the counsel of Bil’am, to revolt against the Lord in the matter of Pe’or, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. Now, therefore, kill every male among the children, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him.” (31:9, 14-17)

Moshe emphasizes that the revenge of Bnei Yisrael is not motivated by lowly inclinations, but rather is driven by justice and God’s command.

II. Blood revenge

The same two possible motives apply in the case of an “avenger of blood,” who seeks justice for the death of his relative. “The revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer” (35:19) – the relative of the victim will naturally view the killer, who caused the death by accident or through negligence, as a murderer.

The function of the leviim is to correct this impression. There is a close connection between the cities of the leviim and the cities of refuge, whose halakhic specifications are treated at the end of the second chapter of Massekhet Makkot. The leviim provide the accidental killer with the social environment that he lacks and the recognition that he seeks. In contrast to the revenger of blood, who views him as a murderer whose hands have shed blood, the levi views him as a person who has committed a terrible act unwittingly.

Obviously, the truth is a combination of both perspectives: the killer did not intentionally murder the victim; it is quite possible that he did not even know him. However, he is certainly not completely innocent.

The verses in our parasha describe three cities of refuge on the eastern side of the Jordan, and another three on the western side. The Gemara (Makkot 9b) notes this seeming disproportion: how can it be that there are an equal number of cities of refuge on each side, while the eastern side of the Jordan houses only two and a half tribes, while nine tribes live on the western side? The answer:

“Abaye said: Murderers are more common in Gil’ad (i.e., on the eastern side), as it is written, ‘Gil’ad is a city of those who perform iniquity; it is covered with footprints (akuba) of blood’ (Hoshea 6:8). Rabbi Elazar said: They tracked (okvin) down victims to slay them.” (ibid.)

Apparently, bloodshed was rife in Gil’ad, and therefore a relatively higher number of cities of refuge were required in that region. As proof, the Gemara cites a verse which seems rather inappropriate, since it speaks of intentional murderers. How, then, do we arrive at the understanding that on the eastern side of the Jordan there are also more instances of unintentional killing? The Tosafot answer this question:

“In Gil’ad murder was rife. They therefore needed more cities of refuge, because when a murder was committed without witnesses, God would arrange for the murderer to be present at an inn [where he would be killed by someone unintentionally] – as described below (10b).”

Where there is lack of sensitivity for human life, there will be more accidental deaths as well as more premeditated murder. In a place where there are many murderers, the general atmosphere is one of insensitivity towards human life. As a result, the woodcutter fails to examine his axe seven times; he suffices with one quick check. The distance between this point and a society in which the value of human life is eroded, is short.

God restores justice by arranging for the murderer (who killed intentionally, but without witnesses) and the accidental killer to meet at an inn. The accidental murderer causes – through negligence – the death of the murderer, and he himself is now forced into exile in a city of refuge, lest he in turn be killed by the avenger of blood. Bloodshed leads to bloodshed; an intentional killing leads to an accidental one and vice versa, and society finds itself full of the “footsteps of blood.”

The news headlines today are filled with blood on a daily basis: there is violence, assault, abuse – both physical and verbal – and more. Our response to any sort of violence must be forceful and unequivocal: violence is unacceptable.

“Murder is rife in Gil’ad.” If we wish to reduce the number of killers – both murderers and unintentional killers – we must act in every way that we can to reduce all displays of violence. In every context and at every opportunity we must remain true to our Divine image and maintain sensitivity towards human life.