If suddenly, without enmity, he pushes him … The assembly will save the murderer … they will return him to his city of refuge. (Bamidbar 35:22–25)
Judicial systems around the world justify punishment of criminals as retribution for their crimes. They also intend to send a warning to others not to engage in criminal behavior. The Torah justice system adds a third reason for punishing wrongdoing. We call it kapparah — expiation of guilt. It is actually a means of providing forgiveness for misdeeds.
Why, then, should a person who killed unintentionally be punished? None of the above justifications for retribution applies.
We must first distinguish between acts that are accidental and those that are merely unintentional. Rambam (Hilchot Rotzeach 6:12) provides guidelines to help us differentiate between accidental and unintentional. According to the Rambam, the difference is that the accident occurs completely by chance. It is something that would not be expected to happen.
Unintentional, on the other hand, is when the event was foreseeable — it was in the realm of possibility under the circumstances. Had the killer been more careful, he would have been able to avoid the tragedy.
The Torah views the unintentional killer as guilty because he put his own interests before that of others. The Torah remedy is to exile the killer away from his normal surroundings and leave him there to reflect not only on what he did, but also to contemplate what in his character caused harm to others.
The Gemara (Makkot 11a) revealed that the criminals prayed daily for the death of the Kohen Gadol. To mitigate the effectiveness of the murderers’ prayers, the mother of the Kohen Gadol would bring them bribes in the form of delicacies and clothing Why, we might ask, should a criminal’s prayers work in harming the greatest holy man of his generation?
The Gemara explains that the Kohen did not concern himself enough for the people of his generation to pray with intensity to prevent such mishaps. The killer was selfish and the Kohen suffered from the same shortcoming. People are liable to come to bloodshed if they are overly interested in their own good.
The Torah wants us to understand that the healthy functioning of society depends on fundamental principles of caring and respect for the lives of others. In modern society, human life is losing its value. No one feels safe! Egocentric status-seeking behavior is the destructive force that can destroy a society. Sometimes a society sinks so low that even giving is in expectation of a return of benefit to self.
Now, during the Three Weeks of mourning, we must keep in mind that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam — unjustified hatred. How can it be that the Gemara says (Yoma 9b) that the people did acts of kindness and in the same statement attribute the cause of destruction to baseless hatred?
We might answer that they did do acts of kindness but they were motivated by self-interest. In fact, the Talmud Yerushalmi implies this clearly: “We have found that the First Temple was destroyed because they committed the three cardinal sins. But we know that during the Second Temple period they worked hard at studying Torah. We know they kept the commandments and gave their tithes. So why was the Temple destroyed? Because they loved money, and they hated each other without justification.”
The Yerushalmi says nothing about acting kindly. This is because their kindness was a sham.
To hasten our salvation, we must begin by being careful not to harm others by being truly concerned about their welfare. If we increase our love and concern for others, there is no doubt that Hashem will treat us with mercy and compassion and bring an end to all suffering with the coming of Mashiach speedily and in our days. Amen.