Parashiot Mattot & Masei (Tribes and Journeys)
Numbers 30:2-32:42, 33:1-36:13
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4, 4:1-2
This Shabbat is Shabbat Chazak, as we finish one of the five books of Moses, the book of Numbers. We read two Torah Portions this week and we have entered into the month of Av. Remember on the ninth of Av we observe the memorial of the destruction of the two Temples which occurred on the exact same calendar date. Our study today is taken from the second Parashah, Parashat Masei. It concerns murder.
The Torah reveals in just a few verses a great deal about how to respond when a murder occurs. For example, the Word of G-d allows for the death penalty in certain occurrences. There must be more than one witness to the act; and, as in all matters regarding testimony, the witnesses must be individuals who are known for submitting to the Scripture. That would mean that those who are known criminals or simply ones who do not attempt to apply Biblical truth to their lives could not testify in any court proceedings. Obviously today that would eliminate many of those who bear witness in a trial.
In dealing with murder specifically, from our Torah reading one learns that several other factors are important for determining if one actually committed murder, rather than some other criminal offense that lead to another’s death. The first thing is if there was known enmity between the two individuals or at least at the time of the fatal act there was malice on the part of the one who performed the fatal act upon the one who died. The Torah states in regard to this,
“If with hatred he will push him or had struck him while hunting* and he died.”
This verse clearly teaches that if out of malice the killer acted, whether he pushed him to his death or struck him and caused this one to die, murder has been committed. At the end of the verse it mentions, “while hunting“. *This term implies if the killer was pursuing another individual for the purpose of attacking this one or waiting in one location to ambush him for the purpose of harming this person then murder has been committed. This term is not relating to one who kills another in a hunting accident. This one verse relates to motive and intent. Motive, because he had malice, intent because he pursued or ambushed him.
Next the Torah deals with the issue of premeditation when it states,
“But with suddenness without enmity he pushed him or threw at him any instrument without hunting or with any rock by which one could die without seeing and it fell upon him and he died and he (the killer) was not an enemy to him and was not seeking his harm.” Numbers 35:22-23
Clearly these verses are dealing with one who by his actions caused another to die, but the killer did not do so with premeditation. The key phrase in this passage is “But with suddenness without enmity“. This phrase teaches that this one had not formed any premeditated plan to kill, but the action which caused the death happened so suddenly that no criminal intent was formed. Furthermore, because there was not any previous malice between them, it is reasonable to believe that the action was either impulsive or due to negligence. Please note, that the context of this verse is not whether one has committed a crime, but only whether the family of the victim has a right to avenge their family member’s death by killing the one who caused his death.
In verse 23 it states, “or with any rock by which one could die without seeing and it fell upon him and he died“. This sentence implies that even though an instrument was used which reasonably could be expected of causing the death of another, if the one who threw it or put the instrument into action did not see the one who was killed, it is not murder. Here again, the Torah is not saying he is innocent of a crime nor that he should not be punished, just that he may flee to one of the cities of refuge and be protected from the family of the deceased from taking his life. However, if there was a known enmity between the one who threw the instrument and the one who was hit and ultimately died or it was known that he was seeking the harm of the one who was killed, then even if without seeing the victim, he is guilty of murder and has no right to flee to the city of refuge. If the murderer does enter into the city of refuge then the avenger may also enter and kill him (actually the Levites who administer the cities of refuge would not allow him to enter).
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