Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 15 July 2023 / 26 Tamuz 5783

Life and Land

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Become a Supporter Library Library

The Jews are at the end of their forty-year sojourn in the desert, and the Torah reviews all of the encampments. Then, Moshe informs the people that they are about to cross over the Jordan into the Land of Israel, where they will conquer and apportion the Land. Moshe is then told to convey the mitzvah of setting up six cities of refuge — three on either side of the Jordan.

These cities were established for individuals who committed manslaughter to seek refuge. A manslayer was not granted asylum if he acted intentionally or was criminally negligent. Neither did one need to be exiled if the death was a result of an unforeseeable accident. The cities of refuge absorbed those who killed unintentionally, but with some degree of carelessness — such as in circumstances where a cautious person acting responsibly would have recognized the possibility of a deadly result and would have been more careful.

The Torah warns that one may not accept ransom money in lieu of the death penalty for an intentional murderer or in lieu of flight to the city of refuge for an unintentional manslayer. In explaining this prohibition, the Torah writes, Do not turn the Land in which you are into a hypocrite, for the blood turns the Land into a hypocrite, and there can be no atonement for the Land for the blood that is spilled in it, except by the blood of the one who spilled it.

What does it mean that the Land would be turned into a hypocrite?

This is the soil that is destined to bear abundant fruit beneath Hashem’s blessed dew and sunshine. But the soil, the dew and the sunshine deceive, for no blessed seed germinates from within to give life and joy to mankind. Hashem warns, if you tolerate deliberate murder and careless manslaughter in your midst, you turn the Land in which you are rooted into a hypocrite! The Land will disappoint your expectations and withhold the blessing that was meant to come from it. Human blood is the most precious sap nurtured by the Land, and innocent blood that is spilled turns the Land into a “hypocrite.”

A human society that does not regard the blood of its members as sacred, and does not demand a reckoning for the spilling of innocent blood, breaks the terms under which it may possess its Land. Instead, in order to claim the Land and its bounty, society must demand that reckoning. The survival of a deliberate murderer is an affront to the higher dignity of man and is a breach of the contract under which Hashem gave the earth to man and the Land to Israel. By committing murder, he forfeits his right to live.

These commandments were given just as the people are told that they will inherit the Land because they emphasize the sanctity of human life and represent the basic condition for Israel’s right to possess the Land and enjoy its fruits.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bamidbar 35:11, 33

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