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Then Moses set aside three cities on the east side of the Jordan for the purpose of giving refuge to person who killed another accidentally… (they were) Bezer in the desert region… Ramot in the Gilead region… and Golan in the region of Bashan… (4:41-43)
Sandwiched between Moses' powerful, forceful, and moving drive just before his death to keep faith and observe the teachings of the Torah on one side, and his re-presentation of the Ten Commandments on the other side, is an unexpected interruption. Having conquered the lands on the east bank of the Jordan for the settlement of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Menasseh, Moses designates three cities of refuge for a person who killed someone accidentally - specifically where the act was completely unintentional, but with an element of carelessness. The person committing the act is exiled to a city of refuge until the death of the current High Priest (Num. 35:25, as explained by Talmud Makkot 9b). Rashi explains that even thought the three cities of refuge would not acquire that legal status until the conquest of the Land, his love for the mitzvot was so great that Moses rushed to designate those cities in his own lifetime. The Ramban relates Moses' naming of the cities of refuge from the point of his position of a leader and lawgiver - he performed a commandment that was required of him as the person in charge of the Israelite nation.
It may be argued that the cities of refuge actually link Moses' earlier exhortation with the Ten Commandments in the following way:
The words previous to this section are: 'You shall know today and take to heart that there is none other than G-d in the heavens above and on the earth below' (4:39). Belief and faith in G-d, not idolatry. One of seven pillars of all human civilization, according to Jewish tradition. These laws (otherwise called the seven Noachide laws - based on Gen. 9:1-7) are the prohibitions of idolatry, blasphemy, murder, theft, adultery, eating meat from a living animal, and the requirement to establish courts of justice. Taken collectively, they are a set of basic obligations on all human beings to recognize the Source of All Things, and live within an enforceable code of the rule of law and mutual respect.
And the law of the cities of refuge is a high representation of the only positively expressed pillar of human civilization - the requirement to establish courts of justice, applying the rule of law. The distinction between murder and manslaughter is an extremely fine line perplexing virtually all legal systems, and the Torah requires due process to be applied: 'the murder may not be put to death until he stands before (the courts) in judgment' (Num. 35:12). Untimely, man-caused death is extremely emotive, and it is human nature for the next of kin, as well as the wider community, to mob-lynch the killer.
'Ask no questions, just string him up!'
But the Torah tells us that that is not so. The pillars of human civilization must be extended formally, to specify cities where a person who kills accidentally may have the protection of the legal system - which Moses set out to establish at the earliest opportunity.
That was necessary before reminding them of the Ten Commandments - which in the tradition of Saadia Gaon (882-942 CE) is a structure embracing all of the 613 mitzvot a Jew is required to observe. But in order to live as a Jew, one must be a decent human being - derech eretz kodma la-Torah - decency is a prerequisite to Torah. That is the structure on which the Torah stands. And the legal structure to enforce that at the highest (specifically Israelite) level is what Moses was reinforcing by setting aside the three cities that a person unfortunate enough to have killed by accident may obtain judicially-backed protection.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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