“Moses, Elazar the Priest, and all the leaders of the assembly
went out to meet them outside the camp.” (Numbers 31:13)
July 9, 2018 is the 150th anniversary of the adoption of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. Section 1 promises all people in the US (not just citizens) the right to both due process and equal protection of the law. Americans are rightly proud of this amendment, designed to protect individuals from the inherent and overwhelming imbalance of power between them and the state. Many would be surprised to learn Parashat Matot-Masei anticipates the 14th Amendment by 2,000 years.
Parashat Matot-Masei describes the Israelites at the end of their desert wandering. Having fled slavery and oppression in Egypt, they’ve endured 38 years in the desert and now camp on the steppes of Moav, waiting to cross the Jordan River into Canaan. God instructs Moses to set aside six cities of refuge (Num. 35:9-11) so people who kill someone accidentally can seek asylum and be protected against family members seeking revenge.
The cities of refuge are not a “get out of jail free” card, though. Someone who flees to a city of refuge must still stand trial (Num. 35:12) and if found guilty, endure the appropriate punishment. But the city of refuge concept provides both 14h Amendments rights: equal protection and due process.
The Torah provides a blueprint for an ideal society. One cornerstone of that society is the concept of one law, applicable to everybody (Ex. 12:49; Lev. 12:49; Num. 15:15, 16). Cities of refuge provide another: equal protection and due process. The Torah’s ideal society is not perfect; bad things will still happen. However, the Torah’s ideal society doesn’t allow vigilante justice to compound the tragedy.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom