In our Torah portion this morning, specifically in B’Midbar 35, we read how the community must protect an individual who accidentally kills another from what the Torah refers to as a Goel HaDam, a blood-avenger or a blood redeemer (one who redeems he or she who was killed). A Goel HaDam is a dramatic name for a family member, who, according to ancient Israelite practice, had the right to slay the person who killed their loved one.
Before we go further, I want to point out the obvious: it is no longer permitted within Judaism, in Israel, to kill someone who accidentally killed someone you care about. This prohibition evolved as the Jewish people and our legal system became more sophisticated. In the 1600’s, Jewish scholars were writing how the concept of the Goel HaDam – the blood avenger – was obsolete – although we still see this concept play out in the Middle East to this day – even in Jewish circles.
Overtime, it became common practice within the Jewish world to rely upon the law of the land and the Jewish courts to take care of killers – whether they committed their crime intentionally or by accident. In turn, Judaism embraced the prohibition to not seek revenge.
I should also point out that while Judaism is in favor of capital punishment, as Jewish law developed, an incredibly difficult system of restrictions was put in place that made it nearly impossible to legally kill someone. The Mishnah states that if a court executed one person in seven years, it was considered a destructive court. The great Rabbi Akiva said that had he served on the court, no one would have ever been executed.
So, you can see that while the concept of a Go-el HaDam was very real, it does indeed fly in the face of Jewish values regarding crime and punishment.
“Taking revenge,” Maimonides would go on to explain in the Middle Ages, “is an extremely bad trait. A person should be accustomed to rise above his feelings about all worldly matters, for those who understand the deeper purpose of the world consider all these matters as vanity and emptiness which are not worth seeking revenge for.”
All of this being said, seeking revenge on behalf of a slain loved one and obliterating their killer- call it revenge, call it avenging their death, call it redeeming their soul – call whatever you want…it is a very human feeling and desire. It is not “morally” right by today’s standards – but it was condoned by our Torah portion and – think about it, when it comes to the murder of a loved one – morality is easily tossed out the window.
Sadly, I know this firsthand.
As a teenager, my two great-aunts, Phoebe and Anne, were brutally attacked in their home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The attacker bound and gagged them. Assaulted them, broke their jaws, ransacked their house, and stole whatever he could get his hands on. This attack was not an accident. Tragically, had the attacker been caught, he he would have been accused of murder as my Aunt Anne did not survive the beating. She died in the hospital a few days after the attack. Thankfully, my Aunt Phoebe did survive, although she was haunted by what happened to her and her sister.
My late grandfather, Phoebe and Anne’s youngest brother, Louis, of blessed memory, had a great life. I was very close with him. He passed away with very few regrets – one, however, was that he never got his hands on his sisters’ killer; and this killer was never caught.
While my grandfather grew up on the streets of Williamsburg Brooklyn, long before Williamsburg was the place to live, and regularly told me stories of the fist fights he would get into at the local navy yard, there wasn’t a violent bone in my grandfather’s body. He was the epitome of a lover not a fighter. The kindest, gentlest soul I’ve ever met.
Except when he talked about his sisters’ murderer. He wanted to find the culprit himself and beat him to a pulp. He told me himself. I tried to explain to him that it wouldn’t make a difference. It wouldn’t bring Aunt Anne back. It wouldn’t take the nightmares Aunt Phoebe had away. It would only get him into trouble and increase the suffering our family experienced. None of this mattered to my grandfather. He was a Goel Dam. He was determined to redeem his sister’s blood.
When he died in 2006, while I didn’t inherit the violent feelings towards my great-aunts’ killer, I have attempted to look into the case – which has been cold for decades. I guess in this way, I did inherit the desire to redeem Aunt Anne’s blood, but not as a Goel HaDam, but as a Goel HaTzedek – a redeemer for justice. I had hoped to be able to rely upon the justice system. Needless to say, I have not been successful. My great aunt’s blood was never redeemed. The killer was never caught.
And I would be dishonest if I didn’t tell you there were times, as I looked into this family tragedy, that I felt probably a fraction of the rage that my grandfather felt, and a desire to avenge the murder of my great Aunt Ann and the terror experienced by my great Aunt Phoebe.
Unfortunately, I must tell you that over the years I have felt rage similar to this and a desire to avenge too many other people who have been killed, some intentionally, some unintentionally.
One of my dearest, lifelong friends, her uncle was Leon Klinghoffer murdered and thrown off the Achille Lauro – many of you probably remember this horror. Cheryl lost two rabbinical school classmates, murdered by a terrorist who blew up a bus in Jerusalem. I and many of us at RSBI lost a dear congregant to a drunk driver on 595 years ago. We also lost another dear congregant due to a negligent scuba diving company. Both the Ramat Shalom and TBI communities lost loved ones in the Surfside Tower – a situation that most likely happened due to negligent maintenance. In none of these cases was I a blood relative. I don’t think I’d be a legitimate Goel HaDam – but the feelings inside of me – the desire to avenge the death of innocents, deaths that were the result of hate, the result of reckless, irresponsible behavior – these feelings inside of me were real.
My feelings were NOTHING in comparison to the parents many of us know who lost their children and others just up in Parkland, at Stoneman Douglas. We can’t even pretend to understand their rage and desire to avenge the blood of their innocent children – not just by going after the killer, but by going after those who were negligent when it came to stopping him. And none of us have the right to condemn their feelings. They are real. Valid. Very human. And, again, condoned by the Torah this week. While their feelings are valid – none of us would condone acting on these feelings today. In this way, we as a people have evolved from our biblical ancestors.
But, I don’t want us to think our ancestors were simply encouraging people to kill those who killed their loved ones. While the Torah validates the desire to redeem a murdered loved one, while the Torah teaches us that this desire is totally understandable, the Torah makes it clear that something had to be done to prevent those who acted on this desire.
The Torah didn’t want there to be more bloodshed. The Torah argues that ignoring the powerful emotions inside the loved one of a murder victim, doing nothing to “protect” killers, specifically killers whose actions were a mistake, from the rage of survivors, would be foolish. This is why, in our parasha this week, the Torah creates cities of refuge – towns where those who have murdered someone – either intentionally or unintentionally, can flee and be protected – protected from our justifiable rage and the blood of our loved ones calling out to seek justice for them.
These cities of refuge were not permanent hideaways for murders. Nor where they places for anyone who broke any law to seek asylum. The bliblical concept of cities of refuge has been misunderstood and used to justify contemporary sanctuary cities. Judaism certainly commands us to look out for those in need, to offer refuge to runaway slaves, when that abhorrent practice existed, to help the downtrodden and those in danger, to love the stranger. We, after all, know what it is like to persecuted, to be enslaved, to be in danger. However, having compassion for the persecuted was not why the cities of refuge in this week’s parasha were created. These cities were designed for one specific purpose: to attempt to control the very human desire to avenge a loved one’s murder and, thus, in turn, to protect those who took a life.
When a killer or murderer arrived within one of these cities, the court sent messengers to bring him in for a hearing – to a court that was outside of the city of refuge. These messengers were also bodyguards, protecting the killer from the justified Goel HaDam – the blood avenger. If it was decided by the court that the killer murdered someone intentionally, the killer would be judged accordingly. Technically he was to be executed. But if the court determined that it was an unintentional killing, the messengers would return the unintentional killer to the city of refuge where he was to be protected from the Goel HaDam. Were the killer to be foolish enough to leave one of these cities of refuge, the Goel HaDam could have at him – fair and square – but within the city limits – the killer was off limits, protected.
While this concept of the cities of refuge might sound silly, in actuality, they were an incredible legal innovation that PRESERVED JUSTICE while preventing justifiable shedding of blood – because remember it was not illegal for the Goel HaDam to act. But, as we see by the creation of these cities of refuge, the Torah is asking: what good would the Goel HaDam acting really do except spill more blood? Like I said to my grandfather, attacking Aunt Anne’s killer wouldn’t bring her back.
Without these cities of refuge in ancient Israel, vigilante justice would have been the norm. These cities prevented the Goel HaDam from acting on his emotions and kept law and order in the land.
In the Leviticus we are commanded not take vengeance or bear a grudge against our countrymen.
In Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma teaches us: “Who is the hero? He who conquers his desire, as it says, ‘slowness to anger is better than a mighty person.’”
But, as my grandfather taught me and as I have learned by some of life’s challenging lessons, sometimes it is hard, maybe even impossible, to conquer the feelings of vengeance within us. Who can blame anyone who has lost a loved one to the hands of another for feeling the feelings they feel. As Jew’s we’re obligated to lift up, have compassion for, and protect the vulnerable. This week’s Torah portion is reminding us of another vulnerable group that needs our protection. Not the murderers or killers – although the cities of refuge do keep them safe. No, this week’s Torah portion is reminding us to have compassion for those who have lost a loved one to murder – intentional or unintentional. The cities of refuge were created by our ancestors to ensure that those who are understandably incapable of conquering their intense desire to avenge the death of their loved one are incapable of acting on their desire. The cities of refuge were created to protect these survivors, to keep them from seeking vengeance, to be a fence, a barrier that made it possible for the survivor be the hero Ben Zoma referred to in Pirkei Avot. Today, those who have lost loved ones to murder, they can’t rely on these cities of refuge. Today they must rely on the justice system and, this is so important, they need to be able to rely on us. They need our compassion, our strength, our support to be their fence, their barrier, to be their rock.
In the Birchot HaShachar, the morning blessings, we say: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, Ozer Yisrael Bigvurah – Blessed are you God, Ruler of the Universe, who gives Israel strength – who gives us strength, even when we are weak, even when we are overcome with overwhelming emotions, through divine inspiration, through community, and through Jewish laws, traditions and practices that surround us in a Sukkat Shalom – a shelter of peace. Amen.