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Crime, Combat and Courage (Masei) 

Between 1974 and 1989, crime rates in the United States rose by eighty percent. Every day, the papers reported another burglary, another carjacking, another homicide—and experts predicted that the situation would only get worse. But it didn’t. In fact, by the early ‘90s, the number of Americans charged with felonies or misdemeanors diminished dramatically. Why the sudden reversal? Everybody had a theory. Most pundits credited innovative policing strategies for the turnaround; others attributed it to changes in the drug market; a few even pointed to the aging population and the burgeoning economy as possible factors. None of these explanations, however, convinced University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt. So Levitt conducted his own research, and published his findings in a study entitled “Where Have All the Criminals Gone?” This study formed the fourth chapter of his New York Times best-seller, Freakonomics. Its conclusion reads as follows:

There was another factor that had greatly contributed to the massive crime drop of the 1990s. It had taken shape more than twenty years earlier. On January 22, 1973, the [Supreme] Court ruled in favor of Ms. Roe [in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade], allowing legalized abortion throughout the country. [This decision] help[ed] trigger, a generation later, the greatest crime drop in recorded history.

As far as crime is concerned, it turns out that not all children are born equal. Not even close. Decades of studies have shown that a child born into an adverse family environment is far more likely than other children to become a criminal. And the millions of women most likely to have an abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade—poor, unmarried, and teenage mothers for whom illegal abortions had been too expensive or too hard to get—were often models of adversity. They were the very women whose children, if born, would have been much more likely than average to become criminals. But because of Roe v. Wade, these children weren’t being born. This powerful cause would have a drastic, distant effect: years later, just as these unborn children would have entered their criminal primes, the rate of crime began to plummet.

It wasn’t gun control or a strong economy or new police strategies that finally blunted the American crime wave. It was, among other factors, the reality that the pool of potential criminals had dramatically shrunk.

Steven D. Levitt

Steven D. Levitt

Levitt argues that an increase in abortions among certain demographics can lead to a decrease in crime, amassing a wealth of statistical evidence in support of this position. To be sure, his claim is highly controversial. Yet his method is fascinating, because it does two things that nobody else’s does: (a) it draws on the well-established connection between family background and criminal activity, and (b) it explains a contemporary sociological phenomenon in light of events which took place decades prior. Perhaps we can borrow these two techniques to help us analyze a different set of data—one that comes from this week’s Torah portion.


The thirty-fifth chapter of the book of Numbers details the laws of the “cities of refuge.” These cities functioned as a sort of penitentiary for anybody convicted of involuntary manslaughter in ancient Israel. According to the Talmud (Makkot 9b), suspects in a case of first-degree murder would also spend time in these cities: it was here where they were kept in custody until their arraignment. On any given day, then, the cities of refuge housed the nation’s most dangerous citizens.

Yet the geographic distribution of these cities was uneven. The Torah commands the Israelites to “provide three cities [of refuge] in the trans-Jordan and three in the land of Canaan” (Num. 35:14). We know from last week’s Torah portion, though, that only two-and-a-half tribes resided on the eastern bank of the Jordan: Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh. The other nine-and-a-half tribes settled in the west. It seems strange, then, that both populations received the same number of cities of refuge. Rashi cites a Midrashic tradition which addresses the apparent discrepancy:

Although there were nine [and-a-half] tribes in the land of Canaan, and here [across the Jordan [there were only two-and-a-half, God equalized the number of the their refuge cities because Gilead [i.e. the eastern bank of the Jordan] had many murderers. Thus it is written (Hos. 6:8) “Gilead, a city of workers of violence, who lurk to shed blood” (Rashi to Num. 35:14).

Our sages explain that the land of Gilead required more cities of refuge than did the land of Canaan because the homicide rate on the eastern bank of the Jordan was disproportionately high. That’s an intriguing assertion, but it doesn’t really clarify what’s going on in our text. After all, we’re still left with a fundamental question: Why were there so many criminals in Gilead?

R. Asher Friedman

R. Asher Friedman

The best answer I’ve heard to this question came from R. Asher Friedman, a teacher of mine at Yeshivat Lev HaTorah whose ideas we’ve studied together in this context before. Like author Stephen Levitt, R. Asher proposed that if you want to understand a criminal, you may need to figure out what sort of relationship he had with his parents. And though R. Asher didn’t actually cite Freakonomics, it turns out that the delinquents in Levitt’s study share one important similarity with the Reubenites, Gadites and Manassites: their fathers were not present for large parts of their childhood. Thus we read in last week’s Torah portion:

They [i.e. the Reubenites and Gadites] approached [Moses] and said, “We will build sheepfolds for our livestock here [i.e. in Gilead] and cities for our children. We will then arm ourselves quickly [and go] before the children of Israel until we have brought them to their place. Our children will reside in the fortified cities on account of the inhabitants of the land. We shall not return to our homes until each of the children of Israel has taken possession of his inheritance. For we will not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has come to us on the east bank of the Jordan (Num.  32:16-19).

When the Reubenites and Gadites ask for permission to remain in Gilead instead of crossing into Canaan with the rest of the nation, Moses retorts: “Shall your brothers go to war while you sit here?” (Num. 32:6). The two tribes realize that this would indeed be unfair, so they agree to help their brethren conquer the land west of the Jordan and to return to the east “only after each of the children of Israel has taken possession of his inheritance.” At the time, this probably sounded like a good deal. However, the Talmud (Zevachim 118b) informs us that it ended up taking the Israelites seven years to conquer the land of Canaan, and seven more years to allot it amongst themselves—meaning that the Reubenites and Gadites were away from their kids for a period of fourteen years! That’s significant, especially when we consider the strong correlation between crime and paternal absenteeism. “Gilead had many murderers,” Rashi claims; and now, thanks to R. Asher, we have a clue as to why.


Yet perhaps we can take R. Asher’s insight even further. We’ve mentioned that the inhabitants of Gilead spent fourteen years away from their children. Like the rest of the Israelites, these men were at war in Canaan during that time. But the Reubenites, Gadites, and Manassites were distinguished from their fellow warriors in one critical way: they were the ones who fought on the front lines. As per their agreement with Moses, the members of these two-and-a-half tribes served as the army’s “shock troops.” They were the first to go into battle. In all likelihood, then, they saw the most action; they killed the most enemies; they incurred the heaviest losses.

Sgt. Jonathan Kirk Davis

Sgt. Jonathan Kirk Davis

Imagine what it must have been like for these men to return home after an experience like that. Sgt. Jonathan Kirk Davis, who served in the US Marine Corp during operations Iraqi Freedom, describes the challenges veterans face when trying to reintegrate into civilian society:

There is residual stress that carries over from a combat deployment. While on deployment, military people deal with each other in ways that are not normal in civilian America. We are harsh with each other and don’t often act with kindness and gentleness with one another. Add this to natural combat stress, the constant concern that you may get attacked, the wondering if a vehicle near you is going to blow up, always seeing in the eye of every local that they want to kill you.  You are suspicious, tightly wound, and easily angered.

You also don’t mesh well with your families. They do things you don’t understand. They do things you don’t understand, mostly because they have grown very independent of you. Many confuse this for a feeling that you are unwanted or unneeded, and this makes the returning person very irritable. Combine all these, and you have an explanation as to why so many men returning from “over there” come back angry and beat their wives… and fathers can’t communicate with kids (and don’t be naive, this is different from those people who think it is the same as having teenagers). It takes time before everything settles down emotionally. Most people make it through this phase OK, but unfortunately, many don’t. This is the part of coming home most people don’t really talk about.

Unfortunately, Davis’ story isn’t uncommon. A recent survey commissioned by the King’s Centre for Military Health Research in London found that one in eight soldiers attacked somebody after coming home from war. That figure was twice as high for combat troops. Against this backdrop, our Torah portion begins to make a lot more sense. The children of Gilead found it hard to cope while their fathers were away; their fathers struggled to adjust to life in Gilead upon returning. Both the children and the fathers needed “cities of refuge” as a result.


In Biblical Hebrew, the word for “refuge” is מקלט. The same word, in Modern Hebrew, means “shelter”—as in the hundreds of thousands of bomb shelters currently protecting Israel’s civilian population from the barrage of rockets being fired from Gaza. There end the direct parallels between our Torah portion and current events. Today, thank God, our wars do not last years, or even months. Nor do the brave boys and girls who risk their lives to defend our homeland feel disconnected from the home-front in the way that a Gileadite soldier fighting in Canaan or an American soldier fighting in Iraq might have. Israelis from all parts of the country, and Jews from all four corners the world, are uniting to show their solidarity with the IDF: by reciting tehillim, by writing letters, by ordering pizzas and even by sending packages of underwear. Our troops know that their people stand behind them. When their military service is over, they don’t just adjust to civilian life—they excel. The IDF is perhaps the only army in the world from which citizens routinely emerge better equipped to succeed in society than they were when they entered. That is a small miracle in and of itself.

Soldiers receive pizza from Project PIzzaIDF.

Soldiers participating in Operation Protective Edge receive pizza from Project Pizza IDF.

Still, the psychological effects of war are real. Long after the last tanks roll off the battlefield and our News Feeds stop bringing us minute-by-minute updates from the Middle East, trauma lingers. There’re a lot that we can do to alleviate it. Perhaps the easiest and most effective way of helping out is by donating to or volunteering at organizations that work directly with veterans and with victims of terror—Natal, the Israel Trauma Coalition, and the Koby Mandell Foundation, to name a few. My own parents have been involved with the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma for a number of years, through an initiative called Peace of Mind, as well as with Beit HaLochem. We had the opportunity to host former IDF soldiers in our own home (in Canada) as part of their program of rehabilitation and therapy. These were wonderful experiences for our entire family.

Eventually, Operation Protective Edge will draw to a close—may it end speedily, and may it end successfully. We’ll go on living our everyday lives, as indeed we should: our enemies focus on death; we defeat them by focusing on life. But there might be soldiers who have a hard time moving on. There may be those whose memories of everything they saw, everything they heard—everyone they lost—just won’t go away.

Let’s not forget about them.


  1. Mike Shriqui says:

    Very inspiring Alex, thank you and Shabbat Shalom.

  2. Chaim Goldberg says:

    Hey Alex-Shavua Tov, Very nice dvar Torah, particularly the connection to and message regarding the current situation. Sorry I don’t have time to write much more, but I look forward to seeing you in Elul.

    Besurot Tovot, Chaim

  3. Shirelle says:

    Very interesting

    Sent from my iPod


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