God Marks the Signs to a Place of Refuge

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Hillel Katchen

The laws of the rozeach b’shogeg, the accidental murderer, are famously hard to digest. In one possible formulation: on one hand, the Torah allows the Goel Hadam to avenge and redeem the loss of his family member, a unique allowance. On the other hand, not only does the Torah mandate that Arei Miklat be set up in which the Goel Hadam is not allowed to murder the accidental killer, but the category of rozeach b’shogeg is excruciatingly narrow to the point that sometimes one wonders how often the requirements might ever be truly satisfied.

In this context Bemidbar Rabba (23:13) compares the laws surrounding the exile of the accidental killer to an Ir Miklat to Adam and Hava‘s exile from Gan Eden. On the face of it, it would seem that this is an odd comparison: The text of the Torah itself both in Shemot 21 and in Bemidbar 35  calls the Arei Miklat places the accidental killer is “nas” flees to, from harm, whereas the concern with respect to Adam and Hava is that if they spends too much time in Gan Eden, they may end up eating from the Etz HaHayim and live forever, which is apparently cannot be allowed to happen, so they are exiled in order to preserve their mortality, seemingly as a punishment.

The nature of the comparison itself in the midrash is even more odd. The midrash submits that technically, as the text in Bereishit says as well (2:17), Adam and Hava were supposed to die as a punishment. Why? Because their sin had made humans mortal, and for the sin of laying the groundwork of all future death, Adam and Hava were to die that very day. God, however, had mercy, and instead of punishing them with death, he exiled them from Gan Eden. Similarly, the accidental murderer does not deserve death but because the Goel Hadam, despite this, is allowed to kill the accidental murderer, God makes sure that there are laws that the signs to Arei Miklat are clearly marked so that the accidental murder may more easily take refuge from the Goel Hadam.

The axes of the comparison do not seem to line up. Adam and Hava were supposed to die but God has mercy on them and they did not die. This makes sense. The accidental killer, however, the midrash states explicitly, is not liable to be executed, so what form of “mercy” is God exactly displaying by keeping him safe?

It would seem that the common thread running through these narratives is that the natural world is random and unsafe, and God is the one who redeems us from this unsafe existence. It is fitting and natural that Adam and Hava, who allowed death, should rapidly die – but God’s mercy does not allow it. Similarly, yes, it is truly hard to understand the very existence of the Goel Hadam. He is allowed to act on some jarring combination of vigilante justice and family honor, but in the natural state of things, such actions, or at the very least, the wishes of the family to carry out such actions, seem to be very natural. How fitting, then, that the accidental murderer, who was not purposeful and caring enough in his actions to the point that another died, ends up in a wayward existence in which the natural world (the Goel Hadam) is potentially fatally unsafe for him, save for the mercy of God, who makes sure the signs are marked to a place of refuge.

Hillel Katchen (SBM 2004) lives in Jerusalem with his family and works as a lawyer.

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