Prisons could learn lessons from biblical cities of refuge

Shoftim

Deuteromony 16:18 – 21:9

Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

In this week's parashah we encounter the laws concerning the person who unintentionally kills another individual. The classic example offered by the Torah is the case of a man who goes into the forest to chop wood, and the handle of his ax flies off, killing a passerby. The punishment for this crime is exile in a city of refuge.

It is worth examining some obvious questions about this case. Why, if the death was clearly accidental, should the woodchopper be punished? The Talmud in Makkot 2 defines three categories of "accident." Not all accidents are the same or have the same degree of non-responsibility.

First, there is what is known as "almost being forced." This is a catastrophe that could not have been foreseen or avoided. When such a freak accident occurs, the person is completely inculpable and not subject to punishment. A person who suffers a sudden massive coronary while at the wheel of an automobile, killing a pedestrian might be such an example.

At the other extreme, there is another category that the Talmud calls "as if on purpose" or "close to intentional." An example might be the individual who is warned that his brakes need to be fixed and he drives anyway, plowing into a crowd, killing several people. Although he clearly did not intend to do harm, he demonstrated such a superficial regard or such a wanton disregard for human life that his guilt is too great to be allowed to atone for his crime by exile.

For the person who is "almost forced" or the one who acts "as if on purpose," exile does not apply: the former, because he has no guilt and the latter because he has too much guilt.

Based on the Talmud, the inadvertent killer is limited to a restricted middle ground of accidental incidents that exhibit some guilt but not gross negligence. In the case of the woodchopper, for example, had he demonstrated some precaution and good judgment by carefully examining his ax before the chopping began, a life could have been spared.

So what lesson are we to learn from the laws of the inadvertent killer? I believe they are meant to teach us a lesson in sensitivity. We learn the high degree of respect we must have for human life, and the extent to which we must be prepared to go to sustain and guard it.

Perhaps this approach will help us to better understand and appreciate how well the punishment of exile really fits the crime. The Talmud in Makkot also tells us that there were 42 more than just the six well-known cities of refuge mentioned in the Torah. All 48 Israeli cities were known as Arei Haleviim. They were given to the tribe of Levi and served concurrently as Arei Miklat, cities of refuge.

This connection to the tribe of Levi uncovers the true nature of these cities. The task and charge of the Levi'im was, over and above everything else, to teach Torah to the Jewish people. We see this as Moses blesses the tribe of Levi at the end of the Torah, "They will teach Your laws to Yaakov, Your Torah to Israel" (Deuteronomy 33:10).

The Levi'im's role was to be the communicators of Torah values. And we might ask, "Is there a more important Torah value than reverence for human life?" The precept of Pekuach Nefesh, setting aside almost all mitzvot in the face of a possible threat to human life, is but one example of our system of halachah, which promotes the ideal of the infinite value of chayei sha'ah (even temporary life).

It is not coincidental that the Torah orders the inadvertent killer to be exiled in those particular cities. This was not so much with an eye toward punishment as toward rehabilitation. The one who had previously indicated too little regard for human life was to be resensitized to the value that life is a sacred gift from the Almighty, which we must treasure and preserve. How to do this? Complete absorption in a Torah environment surrounded by a community of Torah scholars was the method. They would hopefully be the role models of Jewish values.

An interesting and supportive proof of this interpretation is found again in Makkot. The Talmud deduces from a verse in the book of Joshua that if the inadvertent killers were to become the majority population of a city of refuge, the city would forfeit its status as such. The halachah views such a dramatic change in the demographics of the city as an indication of its inability to fulfill its role as a rehabilitative environment.

It is noteworthy to contemplate that the Torah understood so long ago that you can't surround a criminal with other criminals and anticipate that he will be rehabilitated. The American penal system might wish to consider this idea.

Shabbat shalom.