Posted by: Subway Conductor | August 21, 2020

A Derasha on Parshat Shoftim


In this week’s Torah portion, we find the commandment to establish cities of refuge. The Torah mandates that when someone kills another person accidentally, he must flee to one of these cities of refuge and live there. Initially, Moses commands the Israelites to establish three of these cities of refuge, but as their territory is expanded, they will add more. We might ask, if he killed his fellow accidentally, why does he bear any culpability. Why does he need atonement for this act? We should remember that on Yom Kippur, we confess and seek atonement for sins that we committed unintentionally. We read a lengthy list of transgressions in the al chet which includes sins we may not even know we committed. In the time of the Temple, if one violated shabbat unintentionally, one would be required to bring a sacrifice for atonement. So, clearly, we are culpable for unintentional sins. But, in the case of killing someone unintentionally, there is another aspect to our culpability.

The example the Torah gives of a manslayer, someone who kills another unintentionally is; if two people go to chop wood and one of them swings his axe and the axe head flies off the handle and strikes the other person and they die. Although this is an accident and certainly not a case of murder for which capital punishment would be applicable, however, the perpetrator of this act has demonstrated that he does not sufficiently value life. If he did, he would have checked the axe to make sure it was safe.

We can certainly apply this idea to contemporary situations. Someone operating a power tool needs to take precautions to protect himself and others. I think a good example of this concept is texting and driving. As we know, there has been an effort to stop people from texting while they are driving. The public service commercials which are part of this campaign usually attempt to persuade us to sufficiently value life and to recognize that in the few seconds that we are texting, a life could be lost. A life that is infinitely valuable.

We need to ask a second question. How is living in a city of refuge an atonement for this transgression? How is it a remedy? Let us remember who was living in these cities of refuge. The tribe of Levi was not given a territory in the Land of Israel. The Levites dwelt in the cities of refuge. We must also remember that in biblical times, the Levites were like the rabbis of later times. They were the primary students and teachers of Torah. They were thus an example of people who lived their lives devoted to a higher calling. Living in a city of refuge, it was hoped that the manslayer could learn to value life and to realize its potential. He would see what could be accomplished in life.

There is a story of Rabbi Judah HaNasi who was one of the sages who lived in the beginning of the 3rd century CE. Judah HaNasi is one of the most important figures in Jewish history. The Oral Torah which was transmitted along with the written Torah was, of course, passed on in an oral tradition. Rabbi Judah HaNasi organized and arranged this oral tradition into what we know as the Mishnah which is the central corpus of the Oral Torah.  The contribution of Rabbi Judah HaNasi is one of the most significant of any rabbi or sage. The story, which is found in the Talmud, is that he heard a heavenly voice announce that a certain man by the name of Ketia bar Shalom had earned his portion in the world to come. Judah Hanasi wept and said, “One person earns his portion in the world to come in a single minute, while another must toil for an entire lifetime to earn his portion in the world to come.” What was he crying about? Was he envious of the fact that while he toiled his whole life in Torah, another person gained his portion in the world to come in a single moment? I do not think this can be the explanation. After all, we are speaking about one of the greatest figures in Jewish history. I think that when Rabbi Judah HaNasi heard the heavenly voice and realized that one could earn his portion in the world to come in a single moment, he understood the awesome importance and potential in every minute of life. He must then have looked inward and asked himself whether he had lived up to his full potential, making the most of every minute of life.

We have just begun the month of Elul which is a month of preparation for Rosh Hashanah. It is a time for looking inward and evaluating our lives. The month of Elul has been compared to the city of refuge. Just as the city of refuge is a place to which one can flee and there learn the value of life, its great potential, and see what can be accomplished. So, the month of Elul is a time to which we can flee to learn the value of life. It is a city of refuge in time, an opportunity to examine our deeds and ask ourselves whether we are living up to our full potential.

Good Shabbos

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