“Do not defile the land which you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I, the Lord, dwell in the midst of the Children of Israel.” (Numbers 35:34)
Judaism is often described as a religion of deed, not creed. That is, the Torah commands us (mostly) to do things rather than believe things, and the action is what counts. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason still counts as doing the right thing. Parashat Masei addresses the other side of the equation: what about doing the wrong thing?
In Parashat Masei (which closes the book of Numbers) God addresses the conquest and settlement of Canaan, and divides the land between the tribes. God also instructs Moses to set aside six cities of refuge (Num. 35:6). People who commit manslaughter can seek asylum in these cities and be protected against family members seeking revenge. Manslaughter, of course, is when someone kills someone by accident; definitely a wrong thing to do. But as Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (A Conservative rabbi and dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies) points out, the institution of the cities of refuge is a statement about the importance of intentionality. A murderer cannot find asylum in a city of refuge because a murderer intends to kill. And the cities of refuge don’t provide asylum because they are holy sites (like in other ancient religions); they provide asylum because of the intention (or lack of it) of the accidental killer.
Masei presents a revolutionary idea: the intention affects the meaning of the event. And if intentionality matters in something as serious as a human death, it must also matter in lesser offenses. Intention, or in Hebrew, kavanah, remains a central element in Jewish law to this day.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom