As we discussed yesterday, the Torah in Parashat Masei establishes the law requiring an accidental killer to flee to one of the specially designated cities of refuge to protect himself from the victim’s relatives, and to remain there until the death of the kohen gadol (35:25). The Gemara (Makkot 11a), as we saw, explains this law as punishing the kohen gadol for failing to adequately pray for such tragedies not to happen, as accidental killers would be tempted to pray for the kohen gadol’s death.
However, a variety of other explanations for this law appear in the various commentaries. One interesting approach is that taken by Seforno, who notes that unlike other punishments to which a Beit Din would sentence violators, exile to an ir miklat (city of refuge) is a punishment for an accidental act. An inadvertent killer is sent to an ir miklat only if he was found guilty of some degree of negligence, but, nevertheless, he killed accidently, and had no intent whatsoever to cause somebody harm. And when we deal with negligence, Seforno posits, there are varying degrees of guilt that only God Himself can determine. Some forms of negligence are indeed egregious, and thus warrant a harsher punishment, whereas other forms are more excusable, or at least less severe. For this reason, Seforno explains, the Torah chose not to designate a single, “one-size-fits-all” punishment for accidental murder. Instead, it established that the duration of a killer’s exile will be determined solely by Providence. God Himself would decide whether the killer must remain in exile for only a short period of time, or for many years, and this decision would be “announced” via the kohen gadol’s lifespan. The degree of guilt for accidental mishaps fluctuates so drastically from one case to another that the Torah took this determination out of the hands of Beit Din, leaving it to Providence to determine the length of the sentence.
Seforno’s insight should perhaps remind us that more often than not, we are best advised to reserve judgment and recognize our limited ability to determine and assess other people’s guilt for the mistakes they make. Negligence comes in many different forms and in many different degrees. Numerous mitigating factors, which only God Himself is aware of, contribute to the mistakes that we make. As in the case of the accidental killer, we cannot definitively determine the degree of guilt to ascribe to people when they err. We will never have knowledge of the full range of factors that lead people to make an insensitive or foolish remark, to make a rash, harmful decision, or to act in an irresponsible manner that ends up inflicting damage. We ought to be more sympathetic than judgmental in our relationships with the people in our lives, and recognize that the mistakes they make are, very often, far more excusable than we may initially think.