Summer Divrei Torah: Mark Taffet

Once again this summer we have had the opportunity to learn Torah with members of our congregation during summer services. With gratitude to Mark Taffet for his thought-provoking words we are happy to share them with our entire community.


Shabbat Shalom

For the past few years I have given a D’var Torah during the summer.  One thing I have learned is that the best thing that comes out of this effort is that some or many of you leave with a new thought in your mind.  It might be a point of agreement or of discomfort.  It is all good, as long as you know that this is how we learn from the Torah.

This week’s Parsha is Massei, from chapters 33 through 36 in the Book of Numbers.  It is a long passage that lists 42 camps made by the Israelites during their 40 year journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.  It describes how the land will be divided and distributed among the tribes; land inheritance rights are repeated and we are reminded that women may inherit land so long as they marry within their clan.

Our talk tonight will focus on a part of Parsha Massei that discusses how six “Cities of Refuge” or “Orei Miklot” are set aside for residence by anyone who unintentionally kills another person.  Three are created on each side of the Jordan.

The Orei Miklot provided asylum for an accidental murderer, allowing him to escape the vengeance of the victim’s relatives. A murderer could flee to a City of Refuge, where he’d come before a judicial tribunal. If he was ruled an intentional murderer, he was handed over to the victim’s relatives who would take their vengeance and put him to death.

If, however, the murder was unplanned and without evil intent, and the Tribunal found that so, he could stay in the Orei Miklot until the High Priest’s death, at which time he was free to go home. However, if the unintentional murderer leaves his city of refuge before his time, and meets up with an avenging relative, the avenging relative may kill the murderer and there is no blood guilt.

Several interesting points arise from these passages.  One is that murderers, or wrongdoers, are punished.  If the crime is intentional, the punishment is severe: execution by the hand of the victim’s relatives in the case of murder.  This would seem to satisfy both society’s need for the application of justice and the family’s need for revenge.

If the crime was unintentional, harm has still been committed and the Torah indicates that punishment is still required.  Although execution is not appropriate, banishment to the City of Refuge is mandated to satisfy society’s need for the application of Justice.

Banishment to a City of Refuge may also be seen as a form of protection:  Who do you think this punishment is protecting? (murderer from avenging kin; avenging kin from passions, even though they would be forgiven).

Another point made in Massei is that, if a crime is committed, whether intentional or unintentional, punishment cannot be avoided by paying a fine or restitution to the aggrieved or tribunal.  This would seem to indicate that wealth, or lack thereof, should not impact anyone’s accountability for their actions.

In modern parlance we might say “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time”.

Can anyone think of a current situation where these principals would apply and were perhaps, breeched?  Situations where people have done things that caused harm to others, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and paid money to avoid accountability, rather than being punished severely through execution, or more likely a prison sentence, or less severely through banishment?

News Corp?  Hacking phones and computers, causing damage to people and businesses and pay them off to avoid law suits and keep access to a free press that influences society?

Wall St.?  Gaming the mortgage or other markets, causing a market crash, recession untold personal hardship for the sake of profit; claiming a defense of “We did nothing illegal”, i.e., We didn’t intend to hurt anyone, then paying a trifle to make the problem go away?

Gas companies pouring pollutants into the ground while “fracking”, exempting themselves from review by environmental laws and justifying their actions as necessary to make their industry profitable enough to keep doing it?

What would happen if wrongdoers who harm others in situations where criminal intent cannot be shown but where the probability of harm or consistency of harmful behavior is clear were punished through some form of “Banishment”, in addition to making restitution?

What do we call a situation that is created when parties who do harm, intentionally or unintentionally, are either bailed out or allowed to bail themselves out?


Given the fact that situations of Moral Hazard seem to increasingly be the norm in our society, have we in fact entered a time when, if you have money you can do whatever you want, harm anyone you want, intentionally or unintentionally and avoid punishment by paying a pittance or fraction of the gain you have made?  If so, have we created a system where economic interests prevail over all other considerations, be they moral, ethical, social, cultural or family interests?

Should our expectation now be that Moral Hazard is the norm, accountability applied only when you cannot “pay up”, and “buyer beware” the buzz-word for our every social, family and business interaction?

If you view the precepts of the Torah as a guide to regulate the behaviors of people so civil society may flourish, what is the price of de-regulation?


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