Our world today is dominated by anger and fear, affecting international relations as well as the most intimate of encounters.
With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur right around the corner, we are each confronted with an important question with regard to that anger and fear: Am I part of the problem or am I part of the solution?
Parshat Shoftim: Deuteronomy
16:18-21:9; Isaiah 51:12-52:12.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses continues his instruction to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land without him. Among the laws and teachings that Moses offers our ancestors, he commands them with regard to cities of refuge. Upon settling in the Land of Israel, the Israelites were to set aside three cities that were to be havens for anyone who accidentally committed manslaughter — revenge-free zones for “one who has killed another unwittingly, without having been his enemy in the past.”
Then, Moses adds, when God expands Israel even further, our ancestors were to add three more cities to the original three. By preventing a “Hatfield and McCoy” type of response to an initial act of accidental death, Moses proclaims, “Thus blood of the innocent will not be shed, bringing bloodguilt upon you in the land that the Lord your God is allotting to you” (Deuteronomy 19:10).
The cities of refuge are to function for those who killed another accidentally. For purposeful murder, however, our parshah indicates that the death penalty is the only acceptable answer. “You must show [the murderer] no pity,” Moses explains. “Thus you will purge Israel of the blood of the innocent, and it will go well with you” (Deuteronomy 19:13).
In the case of unintentional manslaughter, forgiveness is not necessarily required, and yet revenge is not permitted either. And in the case of purposeful murder, only a proportionate response controlled by the elders of the town is acceptable. Through the power of law, the Torah seeks to moderate our response to aggression and, in the name of maintaining a civilized society, force logic and reason to overcome emotion.
Today, our response to manslaughter and murder is regulated by civil law. Yet the lessons of the cities of refuge are important. The world today lacks logic and reason: a dearth of moderated and measured responses. Anger and fear dominate our lives. Perceived insults are answered with great fury. Feeling of disrespect are responded to with an even greater act of disrespect. Cycles of rage threaten to engulf us. It seems as if no one is looking to pause — to take a breath — and to think about the greater impact of one’s words or actions. It seems as if no one anymore favors moderation or would permit another to take refuge — to backtrack — from an action with unintended consequences. And even when one does indeed seek to injure another’s reputation, the response to that injury is hardly proportional — it is rarely measured.
As the season of judgment is nearly upon us, may we consider how we might tone down our rhetoric, how we might weigh the impact of our actions, how we might moderate our responses so that in our over-inflated sense of ego the “blood of the innocent will not be shed, bringing bloodguilt upon you in the land that the Lord your God is allotting to you.” With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur right around the corner, we are each confronted with an important question with regard to that anger and fear: Am I part of the problem or am I part of the solution?
In what ways do you feel you have been wronged recently, and how have you responded to those perceived wrongs? How might you have done so better? What examples of feuding do you see in the world today? How might those feuds be resolved or at least simmered down? What can you do to affect the rhetoric and climate of anger and violence in the world today?
Aaron Starr is spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.