After establishing that murder is a capital crime punishable by death, the Torah in Parashat Mishpatim (21:13) briefly addresses the case of accidental murder, when a person did not plan to kill, but “Elokim ina le-yado” – God arranged it that he inadvertently killed somebody. In such a case, the person must flee to a place of refuge where he would be protected from the victim’s relatives seeking to avenge their kin’s death.
Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitz, in a surprising passage in his Mei Ha-shiloach, suggests that the Torah’s formulation in this verse – “ha-Elokim ina le-yado” – seems to describe the accidental murder as a gift, of sorts, to the killer. The Torah speaks of God bringing this misfortune into the “hands” of the killer, as though presenting him with a gift. The Mei Ha-shilo’ach explains that when a person has a negative quality in his character that has not yet caused him to act improperly, an unfortunate incident which brings this quality to the fore can be a “gift” of sorts. The mistake has the effect of awakening the individual to this negative quality so he can address this fault and work towards eliminating it. And thus in the case of accidental murder, this tragedy has the effect of alerting a person to a negative quality – such as, perhaps, recklessness – so he can work to improve himself. Hence, the Torah describes this misfortune as being given to the killer as a “gift,” in that it will serve as an impetus to change.
The Mei Ha-shiloach’s comment must be approached off the background of his general, controversial view regarding the limits of free will and the possibility of God causing a person to sin. For our purposes, however, it suffices to note the lesson of retroactively viewing our mistakes and failures as opportunities for growth and change. The mistakes we make – not to mention mistakes that result in tragedy, as in the case of murder – are certainly not “gifts,” but the Rebbe of Izhbitz here teaches us that we can, and must try, to make the most of our mistakes after the fact. Reflecting on the causes of our mistakes and failures, and how they could have been avoided, helps us become better people and improve ourselves in the future. We can gain from our misdeeds by using them to better understand ourselves and our faults, which will lead us along the road of self-improvement. And thus it is possible for even our gravest mistakes to offer us a valuable “gift” – the gift of introspection and self-awareness, which holds the key to making ourselves better people.