Near the end of this week’s Torah portion, Moshe reviews the laws of the “city of refuge:”
When the Lord, your God, cuts off the nations, whose land the Lord, your God, is giving you, and you inherit them, and dwell in their cities and in their houses, you shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you to possess. Prepare the road for yourself and divide into three parts the boundary of your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, and it will be for every killer to flee there. And this is the case of the killer who will flee there, so that he may live: Whoever strikes his fellow [to death] unintentionally, whom he did not hate in times past. As when a man goes with his fellow into the forest to chop wood, and his hand swings the ax to cut down the tree, and the iron flies off the handle, and it reaches his fellow, and he dies he shall flee to one of these cities, and live. Lest the avenger of the blood pursue the killer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and he strikes him to death, whereas he was not deserving of death, for he had not hated him in times past… But if a man hates his fellow, lies in wait for him, rises up against him, and strikes him mortally, and he flees to one of these cities, the elders of his city shall send and take him from there and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of the blood, and he shall die (Deut. 19:1-13).
In a nutshell, the cities of refuge protected ancient Israel’s “accidental murderers” from those who sought to avenge the blood that they had inadvertently shed. There are dozens of ways in which one could have committed such an “accidental murder.” Yet Moshe, in this passage, describes a very particular scenario: “as when a man goes with his fellow in the forest to chop wood, and his hand swings the ax to cut down the tree…” It is difficult to understand why such specific detail was required in order to convey the general concept of accidental murder.
Chazal, in Masechet Makkot, find legal meaning in these details, deriving from each of them a series of formal guidelines that serve to significantly limit the definition of “accidental murder.” It seems that there is literary meaning to be culled from these details as well. Consider the following passage, which appears in our Torah portion in close proximity to the aforementioned:
When you approach a city to wage war against it, you shall propose peace to it. And it will be, if it responds to you with peace, and it opens up to you, then it will be, [that] all the people found therein shall become tributary to you, and they shall serve you. But if it does not make peace with you, and it wages war against you, you shall besiege it… When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you? However, a tree you know is not a food tree, you may destroy and cut down, and you shall build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until its submission (Deut. 20:10-20).
It is difficult to read this latter passage without detecting in it echoes of the former. Both are introduced against the backdrop of war with the surrounding nations [גוים]. Both are set in cities [עיר] surrounded by conflict. Both feature an individual wielding [נ.ד.ח] an ax [גרזן] to chop [כ.ר.ת] a tree [עץ]. Both involve bloodshed.
Perhaps, then, Moshe is tacitly inviting us to compare the subjects of these two passages. But the comparison is not a straightforward one. On the one hand, the besieging warrior of the second passage reminds us of the “blood avenger:” he is stationed outside the city, ready to kill those inside the moment they step foot outside its boundaries. On the other hand, this warrior is engaged in the very same activities as the “accidental murderer:” he is chopping down trees, and uprooting life. This blurring of the roles may serve to highlight the moral complexity inherent in war, and in the course of human conflict, generally. Like the blood avenger, the besieging warrior fancies that he is pursuing his target in the name of justice. Yet the distinction between ethical and unethical use of force is notoriously tenuous. How many rank and file soldiers throughout history have been sent to kill “those whom they did not personally hate,” in a state of בלי דעת—lacking real awareness of, or conviction for, the purpose of their mission? Or how many were sent to neutralize legitimate military targets, and wound up massacring innocents, indiscriminately, alongside them? To fight in a holy manner is to recognize differences even between the sorts of trees one may cut down. Without this sense of precision, the gap between “warrior” and “accidental murderer” narrows considerably.
There is another, simpler level at which the similarities between our two passages can speak to us. Like the accidental murderer, he who destroys produce-bearing trees causes indirect loss of life: he rids the planet of the resources that sustain its inhabitants. The analogy is particularly poignant in modern times, as we humans are beginning to realize the deep damage that our indulgent lifestyles inflict upon the global ecosystem. According to one study, climate change accounts for 400,000 deaths each year. None of us can be held individually responsible for natural disasters precipitated by human (ab)use of the environment. Yet we are all collectively responsible. Unlike our Biblical antecedents, however, it is doubtful whether we will find a “place of refuge,” should earth become uninhabitable.
These are two of a number of possible interpretations of the curious resonances between the passage of the “accidental murderer” and that of the “besieging warrior.” Both hint that “accidental murder” is not a sin of which our ancestors alone were culpable. We, too, must remain on guard for the ways in which our actions indirectly injure those around us. In every context, our conduct must be conscientious and civic.