William Hamilton

It was an accident

“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 an Ohio 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. 

More than 150,000 people every year in America are responsible for accidental deaths. Can anything help?

Within this week’s portions of Torah, the City of Refuge is introduced. 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.” 

I told this powerful story five years ago. This week I sought to address why the duration of living in a City of Refuge ended with the death of the High Priest (Num 35:25). Why empty out these cities on such an occasion? Some say it was because the death of the most senior moral figure in the society may signal a changing-of-the-guard shift in leadership. 

Yet the story of Maryann’s finding relief reminded me that the High Priest also represented a specific moral Yom Kippur value: forgiveness. And the hardest kind of forgiveness can be forgiving ourselves. 

We are so much more than our mistakes. These words come from a vital organization that Maryann Gray founded. 

When I shared her story with our evening Minyan community-of-prayer last night, one participant who actually knew Maryann well, said she had recently died. She was only 68. And her death came as a shock. It was caused by complications from a surgery she had undergone. In other words, it was an accident. 

Sometimes our strongest feelings are associated with accidents. Self-compassion is so important. Guilt can be overwhelming. If and when it is, 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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