Accident’s accent

“No matter how much you want to dismiss it as an accident, I still feel responsible for it, and I am.” She cried, “I hit him!  Why does nobody understand this?”  Maryann Gray struggled to express the torment that had paralyzed her emotionally for decades following the horrific accident.  She had been driving carefully down a neighborhood street in 1977, when a young child ran out from behind bushes into her car.  She hadn’t even seen the boy.  He lost his life.  And Maryann’s searing guilt had taken away much of her life ever since.

Simply saying ‘accidents happen’ to those responsible for accidental deaths is coldly dismissive.  There are fewer self-help and mental health resources addressing this condition common to more than one hundred thousand individuals each year in America.  Can anything help?

A law pertaining to the City of Refuge is introduced within this week’s portions of Torah.  God instructs Moses to tell the Children of Israel that upon entering the land, “you must designate towns to serve as refuge cities to which a person involved in accidental killing can flee” (Num. 35:11).  When Maryann became aware of this law, she remembered thinking “The Torah was talking about me.”

The New Yorker writer Alice Gregory reflected, “Gray was struck by the specificity of its prescriptions, which suggested that lives like hers were once contemplated with sophistication by the highest authorities.”  Rabbi David Wolpe writes, “There is no statute of limitations on self-imposed pain.” But when “people realize that loss is part of the iron law of life, it helps them reconcile themselves to their own situation.”

Talmudic sources inform us that the roads leading to these cities were well-marked, wider, and free of obstacles, to enable those implicated in accidental killing to travel to them without delay.  This law brings adroit sensitivity to the emotional state of the person who resides within the city as well as to vindictive family members of the person who was killed.  Its establishment esteems the realness of both scarring guilt and the yearning to retaliate for a wrong.

Sometimes our strongest feelings emerge from accidents.  Life-altering guilt and anger can come about because of unintentional mishaps.  If and when they do, God’s Torah is listening.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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