Susan Hornstein

Contemplate Our Relationships With Each Other

Last Shabbat I heard a D’var Torah about the institution of the Cities of Refuge. As B’nei Yisrael neared their entry into the Promised Land, they received the law that requires providing places of sanctuary for people guilty of manslaughter, so that zealous relatives of the deceased will not be able to kill them out of vengeance. This feeling of vengeance is validated by the Torah, and the relative would actually have the right to kill the killer if they step outside of the City of Refuge. The Torah also validates the inadvertent nature of the crime, and provides an opportunity for the killer to find safety. The time period is fixed. The killer should stay in the City of Refuge until the death of the next Kohen Gadol, High Priest. The killer is in a sort of confinement, living away from their normal social circles, but is also able to pursue a life in a city, with people around them. The Cities of Refuge were also cities populated by Levites, whose occupation was education, so there may have been opportunities for Torah study. The person who delivered the D’var Torah emphasized that the killer would have ample time for self-reflection, time to work on their relationship with God.

I have been stewing about this all week. Traditional sources identify manslaughter as a case of negligence, in which the person did not intend to hurt anyone, but did not take sufficient care to prevent someone from getting killed. As I used to try to explain to my kids, “It may not have been your fault, but it’s still your responsibility.” What could have prevented such a death? A better understanding of the consequences of one’s actions – the human consequences of one’s actions. Taking more care with one’s actions, being more focused, with the end goal of keeping people safe. If so, then surely what we hope the killer will do in exile is reflect on their relationship with other people, more than their relationship with God.

Are those things separable? The Torah’s commandments are categorized as either between a person and another person (e.g. not murdering, helping someone with a heavy load),  or between a person and God (e.g. observing Shabbat, performing sacrifices). But that categorization is after the fact, and may not really be true. Perhaps all the mitzvot are both; all impact our relationship with God and with each other.

And which one does God want? The prophet Hosea (6:6) quotes God as saying:

כִּי חֶסֶד חָפַצְתִּי וְלֹא־זָבַח וְדַעַת אֱלֹהִים מֵעֹלוֹת׃

For I desire kindness, not sacrifice;
Devotion to God, rather than burnt offerings.

Hosea goes on to define the lack of devotion to God as committing crimes against people such as murder and sexual immorality. Devotion to God means appropriate behavior toward other people.

The prophet Micah (6:8) is explicit about a person’s appropriate priorities:

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם מַה־טּוֹב וּמָה־ה’ דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ כִּי אִם־עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶיךָ׃

You have been told, O mortal, what is good, And what GOD requires of you: Only to do justice, And to love kindness, And to walk modestly with your God.

“Justice” and “kindess” – these sound like interpersonal commandments. But walking modestly? What does that entail? The Talmud (Sukka 49b) defines Micah’s terms:

“To do justly”; this is justice. “To love mercy”; this is acts of kindness. “To walk humbly with your God”; this is referring to taking the indigent dead out for burial and accompanying a poor bride to her wedding canopy. (Koren-Steinsaltz translation/commentary, via Sefaria)

Just like in Hosea, what initially sounds like a commandment between a person and God actually boils down to how we treat other people.

And while the accidental killer is waiting out their term in the City of Refuge, contemplating their regard for others and their relationship with God, they are also waiting for the death of another human being – the Kohen Gadol. That must raise some mixed feelings! They are actively contemplating their contribution to the death of another person, while hoping for the death of another person so they can return to their home and loved ones.

We are approaching Tisha B’Av, the day on which we commemorate the destruction of both Holy Temples. The Talmud (Yoma 9b) says that the first Temple was destroyed because the people sinned – they engaged in idol worship, immoral sexual behavior, and murder. These three sins are a common grouping, and we are commanded to allow our own life to be taken rather than transgress any one of them. This grouping is further support for the idea that there is no real distinction between interpersonal commandments, such as sexual morality and murder, and commandments between humans and God, such as idol worship. The same Talmudic source says that the second Temple was destroyed because of the sin of baseless hatred. The story given as an example describes a number of behaviors, some of which point to not being careful with people’s feelings and some of which point to overzealousness in “religiosity” without regard for the human consequences.

So the reason I’ve been stewing about last week’s D’var Torah is this: I don’t think we can talk about contemplating our relationship with God without also talking about contemplating our relationships with each other. The commandment about the Cities of Refuge is about human life. It’s about the life that was lost through negligence, it’s about the life that is at risk from a vengeful relative, and it’s about the life of the Kohen Gadol. When we lose sight of the human consequences of our actions, we risk losing everything – our Holy Temple, our relationship with God, and our own integrity.

About the Author
Susan Hornstein is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Maharat. She holds a PhD in Cognitive Psychology, and had a long career in User Experience Engineering. She is a conductor for HaZamir, the International Jewish Teen Choir, and a founder of the Women's Tefillah Group of Raritan Valley. She lives in Highland Park, NJ. She and her husband have three grown children, all involved in Jewish education.
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