Parshat Matot-Masei: The Biblical Run For Your Life

Kids are incredibly creative creatures.  I don’t mean how they can play ‘make believe’ endlessly or sing ‘this is the song that never ends…’ for hours, changing only their voices and volume.  They are brilliant creative strategic thinkers.  It is nothing short of brilliance how a child can stay within the rules adults set forth yet still manage to do what they want.

We’ve all experienced the moment when a parent tells their fighting kids that they’re not allowed to touch each other.  The next hour is spent with a child’s finger sitting millimeters from the cheek of a sibling repeating ‘I’m not touching you’ over and over. I try to think of the thinking that goes on in the child’s mind while strategizing the moment.

“Goal: annoy my brother

Personal risk: breaking the rule and getting mum mad at me

Answer: don’t touch him…almost touch him…tell him I’m almost touching him…make sure he sees me almost touching him

Quick evaluation: kept the rules, still annoyed my brother…WIN!”

We’ve all seen it –I dare say we’ve all done it.

The rules are usually there for good reasons though sometimes we’re not sure what the reasons might be.  In fact, sometimes knowing the reasons tempts us to disregard the rule if we think it doesn’t apply (given the reason).  For example, you’re driving on a deserted country road in the middle of the day.  Sun is shining, visibility is wonderful and there’s not another car in sight in any direction.  Suddenly, you approach a red light on this deserted country road.  A red light that means you stop and wait but the reason for stopping and waiting doesn’t seem to speak to this given moment.  If there’s no car in sight, that means there is no police in sight so you won’t get caught.  Do you stop?  If the point of the red light is to keep you safe, and there isn’t a safety issue at the moment, is there still a point to stopping at the red light?

That’s the modern question we pose to the biblical rule of shelter cities.  In this week’s Torah readings, Matot-Masei, Israel is instructed to set up shelter cities.  These cities are run by the Levites and are places of refuge for anyone who has accidentally taken a life.  Once someone is found guilty of manslaughter, they are to flee to a shelter city where they will live out their lives in safety.  Who are they running from?  The Blood Avenger, the male relative of the dead person who must now avenge the blood of the dead.  If the Blood Avenger catches the guilty person before reaching the shelter city, the Blood Avenger can kill that person and is not guilty of anything.  Blood for blood.  Somehow, it doesn’t sound quite Jewish.

The Jewish part of all this is that the Blood Avenger only gets one ‘kick at the can’.  If he can’t kill the person between the verdict and the shelter city then the window of opportunity closes.  In the ancient world that would seem very unfair…to the Blood Avenger.  When blood lust burns, it stays burning until more blood is spilled — what do you mean I only get one try??

And then time goes on, societies change and the Sages decide that even one try for a Blood Avenger is too many.  They cannot change what the Torah says and it clearly says the guilty person can flee to a shelter city and the Blood Avenger can kill him along the way.  The Sages become brilliantly creative.  They place the court within the shelter city.

Any guilty verdict now results in the person already sheltered within a shelter city and there is no longer an opportunity for the Blood Avenger to kill anyone.  In fact, no reason for the Blood Avenger to even come to the trial and likely wouldn’t be allowed in since shelter cities are monitored very closely to make sure Blood Avengers don’t get in.  We quickly get to the point of not identifying anyone as a Blood Avenger and the burning of a blood lust quiets down.

By not changing the rule, we continue to understand that for those who feel fire within them, accidents take time to accept and time to reconcile.  It is our nature to look for closure through blame, but accidents, by their very nature, leave no one to blame.  Without the rule, we miss a primal understanding of what drives us, but with the rule and no creativity, we might continue to allow ourselves to seek vengeance and justify it by saying God said we could.

The creativity we test as children, and the creativity modelled to us by the Sages, allow us to learn about ourselves and still preserve the frameworks we need.

And, yes, we stop at the deserted red light.