This week’s parashat Mishpatim, serves as the basis of the Hebrew system of jurisprudence. It is the fourth most numerous portion in terms of mitzvot, containing 53 commandments, 23 positive and 30 negative.
In this week’s portion we find several fascinating and complex statutes governing the crimes of murder and manslaughter.
In Exodus 21:12 the Torah boldly declares, מַכֵּה אִישׁ וָמֵת, מוֹת יוּמָת , One who strikes a man so that he dies, shall surely be put to death. Although the Torah was not the first ancient source to declare this absolute rule, the Torah’s application of this law underscoring the sanctity of human life, was revolutionary.
Other legal systems, such as the Hammurabi Code of ancient Babylonia treated both perpetrators and victims of different social status differently. Wealthy perpetrators and those of the noble class were treated far better than women, poor men, children and slaves, and were subject to lesser penalties for many crimes and accidents.
The Torah, on the other hand, makes no distinction regarding the status of the perpetrator or the victim. In fact, if the perpetrator were a High Priest, the Torah states (Exodus 21:14), מֵעִם מִזְבְּחִי תִּקָּחֶנּוּ לָמוּת , the High Priest can be dragged from within the Sanctuary and the Altar to be put to death.
In Hammurabi’s Code, if one killed the daughter of one’s neighbor, the perpetrator’s daughter would be put to death. The punishment for killing a neighbor’s slave was simply a fine.
Hammurabi’s laws were based on the concept of “chattel,” meaning the primacy of possessions and ownership. The Torah, boldly rejected that understanding. It revolutionized the concept of murder by introducing the idea of the sanctity of human life. Since every human is created in the image of God, taking a human’s life is equivalent to destroying part of God. Hence, there is no difference between one human being and the next or between one perpetrator and the next. The punishment is the same for all murderers and all thieves.
The Torah also takes into consideration the circumstances of homicide. The Torah in Exodus 21:13 declares, וַאֲשֶׁר לֹא צָדָה וְהָאֱ-לֹקִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ, וְשַׂמְתִּי לְךָ מָקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יָנוּס שָׁמָּה , But, for one who has not lain in ambush and God had caused it to come to His hand, I shall provide you a place to which he shall flee.
Therefore, in the instance of accidental homicide, where the taking of life was not premeditated, the killer may run to a city of refuge.
In ancient Israel there were six official cities of refuge– three in the lands east of the Jordan and three on the lands west of the Jordan. According to Maimonides (Laws of Murder and Preserving Life 8:8), all 48 Levitical cities served as cities of refuge where perpetrators could run to escape the wrath of the next of kin who wished to kill them.
Rashi cites a fascinating and perplexing answer to what the meaning of וְהָאֱ-לֹקִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ , that God made the accidental death happen.
Rashi cites the example of two people, one who had killed intentionally and the other who had killed unintentionally, but because of the lack of witnesses, the one who killed intentionally was not put to death, and the one who killed unintentionally was not exiled to a city of refuge.
In order to make certain that both receive their proper punishments, God causes both of these people to be together in the same inn. The one who killed unintentionally ascends a ladder and falls on the one who killed intentionally, who is sitting under the ladder, killing him. Since there are now witnesses, the one who killed unintentionally goes to exile and the one who killed intentionally is now dead. It is in this manner that the Al-mighty holds those who had previously escaped justice accountable.
While it is true that many things in life are predetermined, every human being is still blessed with abundant free will to make correct choices and to perform meritorious deeds that will enrich the world and bring great blessing to others. God surely rules the world, but we humans still have the ability to steer to the left or to the right, and accomplish great things.
Please Note: This Shabbat is Shabbat Parashat Shekalim. On this Shabbat, an additional Torah portion, known as Parashat Shekalim, is read. It is the first portion of four additional thematic Torah portions that are read on the Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. Shabbat Shalom