Do Not Desecrate the Land
The matter of arei miklat (cities of sanctuaries for unintentional murderers) plays an important role at the end of Sefer Bamidbar. At the end of the Torah’s discussion, it says that beit din should not take a bribe to spare a murderer of the death sentence or an unintentional murderer of incarceration in an ir miklat (Bamidbar 35:31-32).
The debate about the death penalty is one that is waged in many modern societies. Many oppose it, despite the need to protect society with a serious deterrent, citing four main claims: 1) There are moral problems with taking lives, including the idea that man should not take that which G-d granted. 2) Since human judges can err, it is dangerous to give punishments that cannot be reversed. 3) The death penalty does not rectify the death of the victim. 4) Life imprisonment is also an effective tool to prevent the recurrence of the criminal’s act of murder.
The Torah has a response to each of these claims, which we will present according to the order above: 1) It is Hashem, through the Torah, Who commands us to take the life He gave, under these circumstances. 2) Very strict standards of certainty are required to carry out the death penalty. 3) It is not only the welfare of society that determines whether a punishment should or should not be invoked. Even if the murderer volunteers large donations, we mustn’t accept them in order to exempt him. 4) Life-time imprisonment is reserved specifically for the unintentional murderer.
The following p’sukim provide an additional reason. Lack of punishing the guilty is called chanufa (literally, flattery; in context, spoiling) of the Land and making it impure (ibid. 33-34). Bnei Yisrael have to establish a society whose values are values of justice, which enables them to live lives of sanctity and purity in such a way that the Divine Presence will dwell in the Land. These values include the execution of an intentional murderer. Failure to act in such a manner drives out the Divine Presence.
This understanding helps explain David’s strange will and testament to Shlomo, in which he commanded Shlomo to kill his chief of staff, Yoav, for having killed two rivals (Melachim I, 2: 5-6). If this was the right thing to do, then why didn’t David execute Yoav himself? We can now say that Yoav was so strategic an asset to David that he had little choice but to let him live. However, upon Shlomo’s ascension, which brought with it the approach of the building of the Beit Hamikdash and the associated Divine Presence, matters of justice had to be dealt with at all prices.
Let us pray that the Divine Presence will indeed dwell in our midst without any impediments.
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