Torah portion Masei contains instructions for the Israelites after they enter the Promised Land. They are commanded to create six cities of refuge, where someone who accidentally kills another can be safe from vengeful relatives of the deceased. The killer must stay in the city of refuge until the death of the current Kohen Gadol (High Priest) serving in the Holy Temple. The Mishna (core of the Oral Law) adds a fascinating detail: “The Kohen Gadol’s mother would bring gifts of food and clothing to the accidental killers living in the refuge cities, so they would not pray that her son should die.”
This seems odd. Inadvertent killers praying to return home can be bought off with bribes? As Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky asks, “Were the Kohen Gadol’s mother’s cookies really worth exile in the refuge city?” Of course, there’s more to it than that. Rabbi Kamenetzky explains that the cities of refuge were not jails or detention centers where people just marked time until they could go home. They were places where people who had been reckless could improve their character under the tutelage of the Levites, who had no tribal land of their own but instead were tasked with teaching Torah to the other tribes. Just as the Levites’ elevated spiritual standing inspired the sinners, so too did the loving mother who traveled far from home to provide goodies to strangers who were likely praying for the demise of her son. This Jewish mother led by example, teaching the lesson that all of Israel is responsible for one another, and we cannot be reckless with the life of our fellow.
The Torah doesn’t punish for the sake of punishment. It rehabilitates the offender by teaching him to be more kind, compassionate, and most of all careful.
Image: “Fleeing to the City of Refuge (Num. 35:11-28)” by Charles Foster, 1884