For the week ending 25 January 2014 / 24 Shevat 5774

Parshat Mishpatim

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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In this Parsha the Torah’s way of dealing with the crime of murder raises a number of issues. The exact words of the Torah are as follows: “One who strikes a man, so that he dies, shall surely be put to death. But for one who had not lain in ambush, and G-d had caused it to come to his hand, I shall provide you a place to which he shall flee. If a man shall act intentionally against his fellow to kill him with guile, from my Altar shall you take him to die.” (Shemot 21:12-14)

Abarbanel asks the following questions: 1) Why does the Torah use the specific expression, ‘one who strikes’? Why not say, more generally, ‘one whokills’? 2) The ability of the murderer to flee to a place of refuge seems to require two conditions: that he had not lain in ambush and that G-d caused it to come to his hand. However, there is no clear indication of what the murderer’s fate would be if he had not lain in ambush and G-d had not caused it to come to his hand. 3) What is meant by the expression ‘with guile’? Does this indicate a heinous form of intentional murder whereby the victim was lulled into a false sense of security, such that the murderer could even be dragged away from the Altar of the Holy Temple in order to stand trial; but short of this, the Temple could offer protection?

Abarbanel answers that the specific example of ‘striking’ comes to teach us that the murderer will be guilty even if the death is not immediate. The only requirement is that the death be the direct result of the murderer’s action. In reference to the second question, he answers that there is no such concept in Judaism as G-d not causing it to come to his hand. Whether the murderer acted intentionally or unintentionally, in some sense G-d played a role. Thus the Torah in this verse is only referring to two possibilities: capital punishment for the intentional murderer and exile for the accidental murderer. This is a fundamental principle of Jewish belief which the Talmud expresses in the following manner: “No one on earth even lifts a finger unless the act has been decreed from Above.” In essence, nothing happens ‘coincidentally’ or ‘by chance’.

In answer to the third question, the Torah is telling us that the expression ‘with guile’ does not indicate a more severe level of intent. Rather, even if the murderer does not strike the victim directly but still intentionally causes his death, he will still be held responsible. Additionally, the Torah is teaching us that the Altar of the Holy Temple never offers sanctuary to the intentional murderer. Abarbanel points out that in many non-Jewish societies the exact opposite was the case. A murderer could find sanctuary in places of worship for an indefinite period of time. Finally, in reference to the unintentional murderer, the Torah demonstrates its compassion in granting such an individual a place of refuge.

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