SALT - Sunday, 25 Tammuz 5779 - July 28, 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
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In loving memory of Yaakov Ben Yitzchak Fred Stone,
beloved father and grandfather whose yartzeit is 25 Tammuz
Stanley & Ellen Stone and their children, Jake & Chaya, Micah & Adline,
Zack & Yael, Allie and Issac, Ezra & Talia, Shai, Yoni & Caylay, Azzi, Eliana & Marc,
Adina, Emunah, Shira,and Gabi & Talia
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            The Torah in Parashat Masei discusses the law of arei miklat – the cities of refuge which were assigned for the protection of those who accidentally caused another person’s death.  It is clear from the Torah’s presentation that the killer’s relocation in a city of refuge is not merely a means of protection from angry relatives of the victim, but also a punishment for his deadly negligence.  The Torah requires him to remain in the ir miklat until the kohen gadol dies (35:25), and specifically forbids accepting a ransom from the killer in lieu of his relocation in a city of refuge (35:32).  Indeed, the Talmid routinely refers to the killer’s relocation with the term “galut” – “exile.” 
 
The Torah concludes its discussion by stating that in the case of intentional murder, ransom cannot be accepted in lieu of capital punishment, because “the land shall not be atoned for blood spilled upon it, except with the blood of he who spilled it” (35:33).  Murder “defiles” the Land of Israel, and it cannot be cleansed with anything but the killer’s execution.
 
            The Gemara in Masekhet Keritut (26a) cites this verse in reference to its discussion of the law of egla arufa – the special atonement ceremony required when a murder victim is found and the murderer’s identity is unknown.  As the Torah states in Sefer Devarim (21:8 – “ve-nikaper lahem ha-dam”), this ceremony serves to atone for the murder, given the inability to earn atonement by punishing the perpetrator.  The Gemara addresses the case where the ceremony was not, for whatever reason, able to be performed until after the next Yom Kippur.  One might have assumed that since Yom Kippur brings atonement, once Yom Kippur is observed there is no longer any need to achieve atonement through the egla arufa ceremony.  The Gemara, however, states that the egla arufa must be brought, even in such a case.  Rava explains the reason of this halakha by citing the aforementioned verse in Parashat Masei: “the land shall not be atoned for blood spilled upon it, except with the blood of he who spilled it.”  Rashi writes that this verse establishes that murder differs from other sins in that there is no possibility of atonement – even through the observance of Yom Kippur – without the killer being punished.  Therefore, even after Yom Kippur, the egla arufa is necessary in order to atone for this crime, in lieu of punishing the killer, who has yet to be identified.
 
            The Sefat Emet, however, explains the Gemara’s citation of this verse differently.  In his view, the Gemara’s inference is from the verse’s focus on the land: “the land shall not be atoned.”  When a person commits any other wrongful act, it is the individual himself who requires atonement.  But when a murder is perpetrated, the Sefat Emet writes, the land itself, in some sense, is defiled.  Yom Kippur brings atonement for people, but not for the land.  The land’s atonement is achieved only by punishing the perpetrator, or, when the killer cannot be found, through the egla arufa atonement ceremony.
 
            We might say that the converse is true in the positive sense, with regard to our acts of goodness.  We must strive not only to perform such acts, to observe mitzvot and conduct ourselves properly, but also to inject goodness into the “land” itself, so-to-speak.  Just as certain crimes are so severe that they in some sense defile the land, contaminating the environment, likewise, we have the capacity to uplift the world around us, to fill it with goodness.  While minimally we are called upon to simply satisfy our halakhic requirements, we ought to aspire to do even more – to disseminate goodness and sanctity, to fill our world with kindness, compassion, generosity, and all the other values which the Torah wants us to live by.