The Midrash Tanchuma, in its opening comments to Parashat Vayeitzei, draws a seemingly peculiar comparison between Yaakov’s escaping from his brother, and the exile which the Torah imposes upon inadvertent killers. One who kills somebody accidentally, due to negligence, is required to relocate in an ir miklat (city of refuge) to protect himself from the victim’s vengeful relatives, and the Tanchuma comments, “One who kills a person accidentally is exiled to a city of refuge – and our patriarch Yaakov was exiled to Charan.” Somehow, Yaakov’s exile in Charan resembles the exile of an inadvertent killer.
The Sefat Emet, in a startling passage (Vayeitzei, 5634), explains that Yaakov was considered an accidental “sinner” in regard to his relationship with Esav. Yaakov felt himself incapable of influencing Esav and drawing him closer to God and to a proper lifestyle, whereas in truth he had this capability. He was punished with exile, the Sefat Emet asserts, for this accidental “offense” of failing to make any attempt to inspire Esav, like a person is sent into exile for accidentally causing somebody’s death.
While the specific application of this notion to Yaakov and Esav might be difficult to understand, the Sefat Emet here establishes a parallel between the neglect of other people’s physical wellbeing and the neglect of their moral and spiritual wellbeing. The exile imposed upon an accidental killer reflects our responsibility to foresee how our actions might impact upon other people, to ensure that we conduct ourselves in a manner that does not threaten the safety of other people. According to the Sefat Emet, the same applies to the less tangible effects that our conduct has upon other people – specifically, upon their minds, their characters and their souls. We are expected to recognize that we can influence other people, that the way we speak to and act towards them, and even the way we speak and act in their presence, can profoundly affect them, either positively or negatively. Therefore, just as a person who acts negligently is held accountable for the physical harm his conduct causes other people, similarly, we are held accountable for the negative influence we exert – however unintentionally – upon other people. We must never think we are not important enough for our behavior to impact other people, because it does. We are therefore obliged to act responsibly to both ensure the physical safety of the people around us, and exert a positive influence upon them.