Parashat Mas-ei: How should we as Jews treat the issue of revenge?

Mas'ei, Numbers 33:1-36:13

D'Var Torah By: Jacob Baskin

“... When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge to which a manslayer who has killed a person unintentionally shall flee. The cities shall serve as refuge from the avenger, so that the manslayer may not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly.”
--Numbers 35:10-12

In Parshat Mas-ei, God lays down to Moses some of the precepts of the biblical legal code concerning murder and manslaughter. Murderers are to be put to death; those who kill accidentally however, are to flee to cities of refuge to escape from the revenge of the victim's family until the death of the high priest, at which point they are allowed to return to their own land. If a manslayer should leave their city of refuge beforehand and they are found and killed by a relative of their victim, the killer of the manslayer is not guilty of any crime.

This is a strange sort of justice. Why do those who kill in the name of revenge go unpunished? The “goeil ha-adam” (literally, the blood redeemer), was in ancient times a member of the victim's family tasked with seeking out and killing the culprit; this is a concept that predates even the biblical texts on the issue. As explained in Mas-ei, “blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who sheds it.” (Numbers 35:33) For the Israelites, this was even an ecological issue. “…The goeil neutralizes the deleterious effect of the blood of the slain, restoring the ecologic balance.” ( Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary , The Rabbinical Assembly, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, New York, The Jewish Publication Society, 2001, p 963)

Revenge is a part of human nature, and even still strikes an emotional chord with us today. Revenge also became indelibly enshrined in the legal systems of ancient civilizations; the Torah's establishment of a legal system with cities of refuge manages, however, to mitigate its effects. Mercy and justice replace revenge as redeemer of a land and a people polluted by sin.

Related Questions

  • What was the purpose of Cities of Refuge?

Revenge can be dangerous. The Torah states that one purpose of the cities of refuge is to make sure that, “the manslayer may not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly.” (Numbers 35:12) This means that the cities of refuge serve an important purpose, allowing the institution of blood redeemers to coexist with a society of courts, trials and sentences. In addition, the cities of refuge serve another purpose that was also served by blood vengeance, “Killing was understood to contaminate the community. Confining the manslayer…” to the cities of refuge had the effect of, “…keeping the body social from further contamination.” ( The Torah: A Modern Commentary , ed. W. Gunther Plaut, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p 1250) This fulfilled some of the redemptive effect of blood vengeance.

Rather than allow goeil ha-adam the right to kill the relative's killer, the cities of refuge allow this right to continue to exist, while moving it within the realm of the legal system. Thus, the concept of cities of refuge may be seen as a repudiation of the ancient idea of revenge, replacing it with impartial justice guaranteed by law.

Exile in a city of refuge is, furthermore, not permanent. Those seeking sanctuary in a city of refuge are themselves redeemed by the death of the high priest, which was seen as symbolically taking the place of the deaths of the killers themselves. Therefore, the cities of refuge are also a device through which the manslayers can redeem themselves; this is an example of the merciful and forgiving nature of Divine justice since, “if for manslayers God prepared a path and a road by which they might escape and be delivered, how much more so in the case of the righteous.” (Numbers Rabbah 23:13)

  • Does our modern legal system still have a place for revenge?

Of course, the legal systems currently in place in North America don't allow for direct revenge in any way, at any time. However, in addition to providing deterrence and rehabilitation, the punishments meted out by today's courts have retributive effect. They are, indeed, designed to take the place of personal revenge by placing it on a societal level, much as the cities of refuge replaced revenge and individual death with exile, a punishment akin to “social death.”

Taking Action:

  • Conflict Resolution

Many conflicts arise when people feel wronged and try to take back what's theirs. You can hold a program exploring the relationship between revenge and conflict situations, both in personal and political terms. How can conflicts be resolved constructively while still allowing those who have been wronged to feel that justice has been served?

  • Allow For Refuge

Make sure that you, like the ancient Israelites, allow those who have wronged you to find refuge and to make amends. Remember that just because an action is proportional or compensatory for a previous one does not mean it is right. Most of all, remember that even when revenge seems appealing, it is best to wait and cool off. The cities of refuge allowed the use of impartial justice as a replacement for hotheaded revenge.

Food For Thought

Even though the Torah sets up a comprehensive legal infrastructure for the Israelites, the institution of revenge is still retained. Do you think that it is possible to dispense with revenge entirely in the present day? Can people always “forgive and forget”?

Reference Materials

"Mas'-ei, Numbers 33:1-36:13
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,222-1,250; Revised Edition, pp. 1,117-1,133;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,013-1,036"

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