"It was just an accident." "I didn’t mean it." "I didn’t intend for that to happen."
Somehow, our society has come to believe that things which were unintentional, or accidental, don’t really matter as much as the results of intentional actions. We simply say "oh, it was an accident. They didn’t mean it"and shrug it off.
I believe this comes from a mistaken broadening and generalization of the concept that we find in the parasha, which outlines a hierarchy of intentional vs. unintentional murder. In my understanding of what the text teaches us here, the more important lesson to learn is that even an accidental murder has consequences.
According to our parasha, those who commit intentional murder are subject to the death penalty, generally to be carried out by the nearest blood avenger of the person killed. In the case of an accidental, unintentional, or un-pre-meditated killing, the "killer" can flee to one of the established city of refuge. If the killer goes outside the city of refuge, a blood avenger may exact the death penalty, and the blood avenger will bear no guilt. The killer must remain there until the death of the current high priest, after which the killer is free to leave the city of refuge, and a blood avenger is no longer free to exact revenge.
To our modern sensibilities, it seems a little odd that an "accidental killer" must flee to a city of refuge to avoid a blood avenger, and that the blood avenger can exact the "life for life" penalty if the accidental killer is outside the city of refuge.
Now, we can simply reject the whole thing without another thought, reminding ourselves that the rabbis took great pains to make the death penalty something that was very hard to impose. Or we can chalk it up to the cultural norms of the times when the Torah was redacted into the form we know it today. If we focus on the "death penalty" issue, I think we can miss the point.
The Torah reminds us that, even though a death may have been accidental, it is no less painful for the family of the person killed. And the accidental killer, too, will have to endure some emotional pain and discomfort as well. The death of anyone has an impact like a pebble in a pond. We cannot be nonchalant about any death, and especially mot a murder, whether intentional or not.
On NPR a while back, I heard a story told by someone who had accidentally killed a classmate with his car. It was an absolutely heart-wrenching story and I found myself quite sympathetic with the story teller. Even so, the story teller went to great pains to clearly portray the suffering of his dead classmates family and friends, and not just his own difficulties in living with the reality of having been responsible, even accidentally, for the death of a classmate.
His story did help to illustrate that, even in our own time, we need a form of cities of refuge. Even though the police and everyone stated that the death was an accident, and that there was no way the story teller could have avoided it, there was still clear and obvious anger, even hatred, towards the story teller. At his school, during the memorial service for the girl killed, one teacher quietly reminded everyone present that the story teller was also in need of their comfort and support. The story teller told about several interactions he had with the girl’s parents, and how difficult they were, on both sides. If I recall the story correctly, he also revealed that it turned out the girl had written a suicide note stating her intention to swerve into traffic, a fact he learned many years later.
There is always more than one side to every story. Is it fair that an "accidental killer" has to flee to a city of refuge, or endure taunts and hatred from others? I don’t know if it is fair or not, and I don’t think fairness has anything to do with it. Actions, deliberate or accidental, have consequences. Accidents have consequences. These consequences impact the worlds of the killer and the person killed-there’s no avoiding that. When a death occurs, people will suffer. The consequences must be dealt with by those that are affected. It might not be such a bad thing that even an accidental killer has to think about the impact of the death they unintentionally caused. If it is simply a matter of convincing yourself "hey, it wasn’t my fault" then perhaps we are under-valuing the significance of a person’s death. Unintentional or not, someone’s death is worth a little soul-searching, Yet we must balance this with consideration for those things a person who has accidentally killed has to deal with, and, of course, great understanding for the family of the one killed.
You can clearly extrapolate this concept beyond the boundaries of murder and death. "Don’t cry over spilled milk" may be an adage that makes sense, yet, at least for a time, the spilled milk event has consequences, both for the one who caused the spill, intentionally or not, and for all the others present (or not present) who may be affected by this incident. Clearly, the adage is meant to teach us to weigh and value things proportionately, and consider carefully those things about which it is worth crying.
How do we know what is worth our crying? How do we know what to do, what is right? How should we act if we accidentally harm someone else? How should we react to someone who has harmed another? The rabbis came up with one way that can help us deal with the complexities of such matters, As we are taught in Pirkei Avot 1:6 :…make for yourself a teacher, acquire a friend, and judge each person favorably. We make teachers for ourselves when we seek out someone who is wise in ways that can help us, our friends help us gain perspective, and judging favorably will enable us to see and understand the world in all its great diversity.
Stephen Schwartz nailed it in this lyric from the song "Wonderful" from the musical "Wicked:
WIZARD: (spoken) Elphaba, where I’m from, we believe all sorts of
things that aren’t true. We call it – "history."
A man’s called a traitor – or liberator
A rich man’s a thief – or philanthropist
Is one a crusader – or ruthless invader?
It’s all in which label
Is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don’t exist
Well, we’re not in Oz, so we don’t really have the liberty to act as if they don’t exist. So we make for ourselves teachers, acquire friends, and try to judge all favorably. It’s a start.
©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester