Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Shoftim
To dedicate this lesson



Rabbi Stewart Weiss

Elul 2 5777
"Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue!"

Our Sedra, clearly, revolves around the concept of Justice, with the 41 Mitzvot in the parsha covering a wide variety of scenarios: Setting up a proper court system; prohibiting bribes; appointing prophets, kings & Kohanim as arbiters of the law; punishing false witnesses; respecting an individual’s "space;" behaving decently during war-time; even treating fruit trees with care & concern are all part of the overall justice system.

Along with these many subjects is that of the Ir Miklat, the City of Refuge. Here, a man-slaughterer who killed by negligence (the classic example is a hunter who accidentally killed another hunter instead of an animal) would flee & reside therein in order to escape vengeance from the victim’s next-of-kin. (There were 6 such cities, including Chevron & Shechem in modern-day Israel).

On the surface, the concept of Ir Miklat seems to go against the overall trait-Mida of justice. Why would we countenance vigilantism? If the perpetrator is guilty of murder, then let him be executed. But if he is not, then why should a relative – though he is understandably upset ("his heart is hot," says the pasuk) – be permitted to take the law in his own hands & take another person’s life? Does the Torah really want to promote the "law of the jungle?"

The Torah, I suggest, is teaching us about the sanctity of life, & the need for ultimate justice to be carried out. Ever since Kayin killed Hevel, & Hashem declared, "the bloods (unborn descendants) of your brother cry out," it remains
a sacred principle that there must be expiation when a life is taken & future generations are prevented – even when the killing was not willful. Ideally, this should be the function of the courts, of the Shoftim & Shotrim who are mentioned in the very first pasuk.

But when that system breaks down & does not function as it should, the Torah allows for justice to come about via the direct involvement of the victim’s relatives. Not an absolute, unlicensed act of revenge, but only one carried
out through the specific medium of the Ir Miklat.

All of this should bring home to us the necessity of guarding life – ours & others - & reacting strongly & swiftly whenever innocent lives are endangered or taken. Freeing murderers, going soft on terrorists, accepting deadly acts as simply "part of the territory" not only commits the ultimate moral outrage, it is an affront to Hashem Himself, & cannot be tolerated in a just universe.
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