Let’s say Guy A and Guy B are at work, maybe they’re on some construction job. Guy A is on some scaffolding several floors up and Guy B is down below. Now, Guy A mindlessly puts his wrench down, maybe he gets a text message, and low and behold, the wrench falls from the ledge, zipping down those several stories and hits Guy B in the head killing him on the spot.
An accident, albeit a tragic one.
Yet despite the accidental nature, if Guy A were living in Torah times, he would now be in a very dangerous situation. You see, anyone of Guy B’s family members (known as the goel hadam) would now have the right to seek out and kill Guy A in a permitted act of revenge.
The only hope Guy A now has to avoid being killed by the goel hadam, is to run to a city of refuge (known as an arei miklat). So Guy A drops everything and runs as fast as he can to get to one of these cities of refuge. Once there, he’s safe from the avenging family member as long as he resides within the city’s borders.
For one thing the Torah specifically prohibits taking revenge (Shemos 19:18). You’re not even allowed to be angry at someone in your heart. But in the above scenario, you get to kill them?
Granted the death penalty is listed several times in the Torah. Breaking Shabbos, acts of sexual immorality, worshiping idols, all those and more can get you stoned or hanged according to Torah law. However, despite the severe sentence, punishments had to be carried out by a Jewish court. And even then, the Rabbis made it very difficult to carry out the death penalty as several criteria had to be met (the offender has to be warned before they do the act that what they are doing will result in the death penalty, the act has to be observed by two kosher witnesses, the assailant had to verbally acknowledge they understood what they were doing would result in the death penalty, etc.)
Why then is the Torah allowing some person to take the law into their own hands, without any trial, and in the most severe way? It seems the Torah is far more careful regarding the life of a premeditated murderer than it is regarding an accidental one.
What’s An Accident?
So what does it mean to be an accidental murderer?
As with all matters, it is important to define our terms. Hebrew makes a distinction when someone transgresses a commandment. Let’s say it is Shabbos and purely by chance you trip, fall into the wall, and hit the light switch, turning off the light. Though you’ve broken Shabbos, it was completely by accident and there’s nothing you could have done to avoid it. That is known as באונס (b’oneis).
Now let’s say it’s the same scenario, but your shoelace was untied and you didn’t feel like tying it. As you walk, you step on your shoelace, trip, fall and hit the light switch. (Or you just forgot it was Shabbos and turned off the light.) There, you were being negligent. That is known as בשוגג (b’shogag). And if you knew and didn’t care that it was Shabbos, that would be במזיד (b’mazid), an intentional sin.
So Guy A runs to the city of refuge. It is after he is there, a trial happens to determine whether the murder was accidental, negligent, or intentional. If it really was accidental, he is set free and goes back to his life. If it was intentional, criminal proceedings commence. If he was judged as negligent he returns to the city of refuge and lives in exile for the rest of his life (or until the High Priest dies, but I’m not going to go into that.)
Now that we’re clear on exactly who Guy A is, we’re back to the question of why the Torah allows his life to be in danger. To understand that we have to understand the Torah’s perspective on negligence and consequences.
We all know that murder and violence are terrible things. But the reality is that statistically speaking, the average person is far more likely to die in something like a car accident (drinking and driving, speeding), a fire (from wiring that is far too old or a smoke detector with unchecked batteries), or some other preventable accident. In fact, unintentional injuries are the number 3 cause of death in the United States below heart disease and cancer.
How tragic is it that in 2017, 169,936 people died from preventable means?! The Torah recognizes that though the person responsible isn’t a murderer, they clearly have their priorities out of whack.
Rabbi Shalom Denbo says the difference between a mature person and an immature one is the understanding that everything we do has consequences. Is sending one text message while driving going to be the end of the world? Probably not. But that makes texting the next time easier to do, and the next time even easier, until in your mind it’s not regarded as wrong at all. What we do leaves an impression on the people around us, normalizing behaviors. And our actions affect the world in ways we can’t even perceive.
If someone has been careless, not taking life seriously, to the extent that they’ve put others’ lives in danger then they need a major realignment. So the Torah says, okay you may not be subject to the death penalty and you may not even deserve prison, but something big needs to be fixed.
The chances that the goel hadam is going to catch the negligent party is pretty small. While they are just hearing about it, the accidental murderer is already off and running. But they need to have that fear that their life is now at risk. Regret isn’t enough. Then on top of that, the life that they have known, that they’ve built over years, that is over. They are going to need to go into exile and build a new life. Live with the Torah scholars of the Levi tribe (all the cities of refuge were where Levites lived) and learn what human life is really about and what’s important.
Of No Consequence
For us today, we have lawsuits, liability insurance, and countless wavers that free virtually everyone from having to deal with the consequences of negligence. In many ways that is a shame. I remember when I worked a waiter. At most places if you messed up the order, you didn’t have to pay for it (legally the restaurant couldn’t make you.) But at one place in New York, if you made more than a couple of mistakes, you were fired. I can’t believe how less often I screwed up an order working there compared to all the restaurants before. When we see our consequences, we are far more engaged in living life.