Parashat Matot-Masei

Two Minutes of Torah with Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky

"Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, when you cross the Jordan to the land of Canaan, you shall designate cities for yourselves; they shall be cities of refuge for you, and a murderer who killed a person unintentionally shall flee there."

—Numbers 35:10-11

We have been startled by the murder of African Americans who are victims of police brutality.  In years past, the Police Officer might have found refuge from prosecution.  The union, the municipality and white society offered protection to the offending officer. They argued that we can’t afford to disempower the police. Those in power argued that society is better off tolerating some abuses for the overall suppression of criminal behavior.
There is a Jewish perspective that elucidates the need for a counterargument. Near the end of Bamidbar, the book of Numbers, the pursuit of a murderer is considered. When loss of life is due to an accident or the result of an argument, the perpetrator could flee to a city of refuge. Six cities of refuge existed to protect the manslayer from the revenge of the victim’s family.  However, when the act was intentional, Torah says that the victim’s blood not only cries out for justice but also pollutes the land.

A role of religion is to reframe events to reveal their spiritual meaning. Whenever someone is murdered, a life is ended, and the world suffers a loss. Whether the taking of a life happens by the hand of a police officer or a parolee, the result is that the entire land is corrupted. Attempts to excuse murder or to rebalance justice, is made more difficult when the entirety of our land is understood to be defiled.
We understand the need for justice to sustain a civil society. But justice needs to reflect more than basic truths. Justice requires a grounding in morality. Torah adds that perspective stating that the land is defiled. By land, Torah does not merely mean a defined patch of earth. The land is the earthly home for Divinity to reside. While Torah contemplated only the land of Israel as God’s home, later generations would say that God resides anywhere we allow God in. 

The text asks us to comprehend the defilement caused by a criminal act. The crime is not merely between two people and not limited to an abstract concept of justice. Murder renders the land in which we reside unworthy of God’s presence.

For me, the role of Judaism as a religion begins with an unwavering appreciation of human life. We start our journey being created in God’s image and we are asked to live our lives creating a world worthy of God’s presence. When we regard all violent deaths as a defilement of God’s place, society might better appreciate the need to make fewer excuses and offer greater protections.