Several years ago I read an article by Jared Diamond in The New Yorker Magazine1 about the experiences of a young man in the New Guinea Highlands in trying to fulfill the obligation placed upon him by his community as the “blood avenger” of his uncle’s death. Just as in ancient biblical society, vengeance was the responsibility of the nearest kin, but in this case, his uncle’s son was too young, his uncle’s brother was too old, and so it devolved on him as the nephew. Until he fulfilled his duty, he felt a sense of guilt toward his uncle, a sense that his uncle was not memorialized in the proper way, and that the loss of his uncle’s potential as a future leader of his community was not properly acknowledged. The young man was relatively “westernized,” working for Chevron Texaco, and aware of the democratic national government in New Guinea, his stone-tool-using community having assimilated significantly since their first contacts with Australian and Dutch prospectors in the 1930s. Yet his responsibility to right this wrong was too important and too personal to leave to the government.
Diamond also reflects on the strong human impulse toward vengeance in recounting the story of his own father-in-law, Jozef, who in the period immediately after World War II, spared the killer of his mother, sister, and niece, choosing instead to turn him over to the new Polish government. At the time of the shooting, the three women had been hiding from the Nazis in the Polish countryside. The murderer had learned of their hiding place and, assuming all Jews to be rich, had come to rob them. Disappointed that they had nothing for him to steal, he shot them with the help of two associates and buried them in shallow graves.
At the moment when Jozef had the opportunity to shoot his mother’s killer, he “kept hearing in his mind the words, ‘I’ve seen enough of people killing and behaving like animals. I’ve done enough killing myself. This man behaved like an animal, but I don’t want to become an animal myself by shooting him’ ” (ibid., p. 86). Yet sixty years later, Jozef admitted to his daughter, “Every day, still, before going to sleep, I think of my mother’s death, and of my having let her murderer go” (ibid., p. 87). He felt that in not having exacted vengeance, he had failed his mother in some way.
Our Torah portion this week deals with the cities of refuge (Deuteronomy 19:1–13), which represent a sort of way station between the society of the New Guinea Highlanders, where vengeance remains in the hands of the family members, and our modern nation, where we have agreed to leave vengeance to the state and not to take the law into our hands. The cities of refuge were there to protect the person who committed accidental manslaughter from the “blood avenger,” assuming there was no animus or premeditation. Though not entirely resolving the problem of ongoing feuds fueled by revenge killings, it did prevent them in at least some cases.
Scholarly thinking is that these cities of refuge really existed: “The Biblical institution is not utopian. Among ancient peoples (Phoenicians, Syrians, Greeks and Romans) certain shrines or sacred precincts provided security to fugitives.”2
While cities of asylum are mentioned in a variety of sources in the ancient Middle East, we have explicit reference to sanctuaries as a place of refuge for “men suspected of capital offences,” in the writings of Tacitus, and a continuing a trail of references to asylum of a variety of sorts that begins with a clause in the Sfire treaty inscriptions, dating back to the first millennium, and identifying Aleppo as a city of refuge.3
How did the city of refuge become acceptable to a community accustomed to vengeance at the hands of the closest family member? I think an important aspect of this compromise was the burden of exile placed upon the individual who had committed manslaughter. He did not return to life as usual, but was banished from his ancestral portion until the death of the High Priest, whose own death provided expiation for the blood that had been spilt. This punishment had an emotional logic that went beyond the requirements of the biblical concept of the pollution caused by bloodshed. Both for the family of the victim and for the perpetrator this banishment provided recognition of the very real wrong that had resulted from the actions of an individual however well- intentioned.
In our modern society, manslaughter is more likely to be caused by a car accident than a misplaced ax head, but the underlying emotional reality is the same. The family of the victim still needs to feel that the wrong done to them has been acknowledged. Even where there is no criminal liability, no speeding or drunk driving, there is the terrible loss that has resulted from a misstep of some sort. In addition, individuals who caused this kind of accident often need a way to deal with the guilt they feel subsequent to the hurt they have caused. Our legal system often prevents perpetrators from being able to acknowledge their feelings of guilt. Their attorney, concerned with protecting the accused from future litigation, will often discourage admittance of any degree of responsibility. Where there is no legal culpability, there is no system in place for restitution or reconciliation.
A member of our congregation brought to my attention a contemporary play, Rabbit Hole, by David Lindsay-Abaire, written about an analogous situation. In the play, a seventeen-year-old driver accidentally hits a young boy with his car causing his death. The young perpetrator is driven to do something in memory of the child. While not legally responsible, the young man still felt the burden of guilt.
How much wisdom there is in our tradition, which recognizes that the burden of moral responsibility can exist even where there is no legal responsibility. An institution originally devised to prevent unnecessary bloodshed also takes on a role in meeting the need for recognition of the significance of the loss of life, even when caused inadvertently.
1 Jared Diamond, “Annals of Anthropology: Vengeance is Ours,” The New Yorker,April 21, 2008 pp. 74–87 (see www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/04/21/080421fa_fact_diamond)
2 Encyclopedia Judaica, Second Edition, Volume 4 (San Francisco: Thomson Gale, 2007) p. 742
3 Al Kanfei Yonah, Jonas C. Greenfield, “Asylum at Aleppo: A Note on Sfire III,4–7” (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2001) p. 320