One of the subjects discussed in this week’s Torah portion is the punishment for involuntary manslaughter, which is banishment to a city of refuge.
You shall designate cities for yourselves… and a murderer shall flee there one who takes a life unintentionally. (Numbers 35:11)
For example, if an axe head slips out of its handle (while chopping) and kills someone, the chopper/killer must quickly escape to one of the three cities of refuge in Israel; his safety is only assured when he gets there. Until then one of the relatives of the dead person might seek revenge and kill him. In short, the unintentional killer’s life has been turned over and now finds himself in exile. One might ask, being as this was only an accident, does the wood chopper deserve to have his life ruined?
The answer gives us a Jewish perspective in how precious human life is. When one places value on something, (s)he will do anything to insure its existence. Many people hang art in their homes and obviously don’t want any damage to come to it. They take necessary precautions by keeping doors locked and having the correct temperature and humidity balance, but if armed gunmen broke in to the house, the art would be lost. The owner would feel bad at the loss, collect insurance, and move on. However, if the preservation of the art was critical for them, they would have taken precautions to insure that even an armed gunman could not have touched that art.
The original copy of the Declaration of Independence is stored at the National Archives with the Constitution and Bill of Rights in cases made of glass and titanium. The air is removed from the cases and replaced with argon and water vapor. The relative humidity inside the cases is kept at 40 percent to keep the sheepskin parchment that the documents are written on from drying out. The argon gas is used because oxygen in air can cause damage to the material from oxidation. Due to its importance, measures have been taken to insure that neither human nor nature can destroy the Declaration of Independence. We see that the litmus test of the degree of importance we place on something is the level of protection we are willing to do in order to insure its existence.
The Torah deals harshly with the unintentional man slaughterer because it wants to teach us the value of human life. Granted, the axe head accidently slipped off and the one chopping should be held accountable for the innocent fluke, but if the person really valued human life he would have taken greater precautions. He should have realized that there were people in the vicinity and checked it before use. The fact that he didn’t indicates that, in a certain way, he is callous, about human life.
There are approximately 64 million flights annually in America and fortunately there are few accidents each year. That means that the odds of an accident are literally one in millions, but that doesn’t stop the FAA from making numerous regulations for every flight. Regular precautions simply aren’t enough; they want to really be sure that nothing will happen. Odds don’t dictate their policies, attitude toward loss does.
One obvious lesson from this topic is that the Torah places great value on human life. On a personal level there’s another message: look at your life and see what you’re protecting. There are multimillionaires whose biggest fear is that they will lose their money and spend much of their life attempting to insure that it won’t happen. Others are concerned with honor and will do anything to maintain it-even if it means distancing family and friends or perhaps giving up a great opportunity because they’re scared they might look foolish. Some (more noble) people will do anything to preserve their family, even if it means giving up a job promotion or relocating to a seeming better place. They will do anything to insure that their family relationship remains the highest priority. The examples are endless but all of us have things we fiercely protect; sometimes even beyond the realms of appears to be logic.
Try this exercise: name two things you would do anything to protect (it’s private; no one but you has to know the answer). Your answer will make you aware of what’s truly important in your life and consequently on where you are holding as a person.
The above exercise gives us a bearing of where we are as individuals, but we must ask the same question as Jews: is there anything Jewish we are willing to protect? Would we agree to speak loshon hara (derogatory speech) on a coworker if it would advance our career even though it might ruin hers? Would one willing to enter a relationship-business or personal-with someone who might compromise his/her life as a Jew? If protecting our Judaism isn’t on the protection list it means it isn’t very important to us. When something isn’t protected, it eventually is lost or taken away. Every Jew must ask: if Judaism is lost to me and family, do I care? What am I doing to truly protect-insure-that I/we won’t lose it? As Jews we must these questions, even though the answers might be difficult.
What’s on your list? What are you protecting?