Shabbat Message from Rabbi Metz

August 2, 2019
By Beth Mordecai
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Shabbat Message from Rabbi Metz

While studying the double Torah portion for the week, Mattot – Massei, I read a commentary by one of my teachers, Rabbi Bradley Artson. His words were especially relevant and interesting to me. So much so, I wanted to share them with you.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Metz


In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah addresses the issue of unintentional manslaughter. What is the appropriate penalty for someone who kills someone else unintentionally? Should there be any penalty at all?

Our portion discusses the establishment of six Cities of Refuge. Anyone who unintentionally killed another person was permitted to flee to these cities. Once within their walls, the man-slayer was protected by law against any revenge or additional punishment.

In this way, the Torah balanced the need to insist that killing another person is objectively reprehensible, while also asserting a distinction between murder (which is deliberate) and manslaughter (which is not). Contemporary American law makes a similar distinction, mandating a different degree of severity to correspond to the different levels of responsibility due to intention and circumstance.

The Torah asserts emphatically that the six Cities of Refuge would protect only the unintentional manslayer. The willful murderer was to be evicted, tried, and punished.

The notion of a City of Refuge is not unique to the Torah. Nor is the notion of making legal distinctions for the same action. Nonetheless, in the law of the Cities of Refuge the Torah presents something breathtakingly new and exciting. What was revolutionary was the assertion that inner intention determines the meaning of an action. All intentional murders are abhorrent, but they are different from an accidental homicide. One who kills unintentionally is still guilty, but of a lesser offense. In fact, the Talmud (in Tractate Makkot) expanded upon this insight to provide for the release without penalty of those involved in complete accidents. Intention matters.

The Torah consistently maintains its emphasis on kavvanah (intention). Indeed, our Jewish traditions continue that distinction to this day. Human beings represent something precious–we are created in God’s image and are therefor representations of God in this world. And what is most godly about us in our knowledge of good and evil. That awareness, and our ability to act on our own moral impulse, represents both an opportunity and a challenge. The challenge is to grow to reflect that Divine Image to the fullest extent we can. The opportunity is to create, through moral integrity and mitzvot( commandments), an environment in which God’s presence is readily apparent.

Our actions must reflect our intentions, as we strive to make our intentions correspond, ever more closely, to God’s.

Category : Rabbi Rabbi's Journal Shabbat