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Thursday, July 28, 2011
Masei 5771 - Covenant & Conversation - Thoughts on the weekly Torah portion from the Chief Rabbi
The book of Bemidbar draws to a close with an account of the cities of refuge, the six cities -- three on each side of the Jordan -- set apart as places to which people found innocent of murder, but guilty of manslaughter, were sent.
In early societies, especially non-urban ones that lacked an extensive police force, there was always a danger that people would take the law into their own hands, in particular when a member of their family or tribe had been killed.
Thus would begin a cycle of vengeance and retaliation that had no natural end, one revenge-killing leading to another and another, until the community had been decimated, a phenomenon familiar to us from literature, from the Montagues and Capulets of Romeo and Juliet, to the Sharks and Jets of West Side Story, to the Corleones and Tattaglias of The Godfather.
The only viable solution is the effective and impartial rule of law. There is, though, one persisting danger. If Reuben killed Shimon and is deemed innocent of murder by the court -- it was an accident, there was no malice aforethought, the victim and perpetrator were not enemies -- then there is still the danger that the family of the victim may feel that justice has not been done. Their close relative lies dead and no one has been punished.