The Essence of Murder
You have just committed murder (God forbid), and now you're on the run! The guy you knocked-off deserved it, right? A real creep! Who could blame you? But now that the deed is done and he is no longer, you begin to worry about your own fate. Perhaps, just perhaps, you acted inappropriately. It was a mistake. Now what?
You race over to the Temple, grab hold of the mizbayach (the altar) where offerings are sent up to God. What could be holier? As the mob appears at the gate, you are comforted by your decision to turn to God in t'shuva, and your desire to return to goodness. The angry mob gets closer, but you're not worried, you're in the Sanctuary. Then you are seized by the violent hands of the people, and ripped away from the alter.
"Wait a second!" you protest. "Isn't the Sanctuary a place of refuge - just like Ducks Unlimited?!" "Haven't I earned a reprieve by turning to God for forgiveness?"
The crowd responds, "Wrong definition of sanctuary. And premeditated murder is unforgivable, anyway!" They take you away, and put you to death. (Check out the lovely wording in the Torah for yourself. Shmot/Exodus 21:14)
Your Torah Navigator
1. Why does the Torah imply that murder is wrong? And why does God take it so personally?
2. The Law in the Torah states that if a person did not plan to kill his victim, then the person can flee from the pursuing mob to a special place. What distinguishes accidental murder (manslaughter) from planned murder? How much of a role does the act of murder itself take, versus other factors?
3. How does the Torah justify the capital punishment (putting to death) of the murderer, when the act of killing is so abhorrent?
4. What qualities and qualifications might the judges in a capital case be expected to possess?
Our intentions seem to bear heavy the consequences for our actions. Our words and thoughts matter. What we think about and what we do are connected. This is called kavannah – and it is one of the most important aspect in Judaism. If someone decides to end the other's life, and then does it -- then he has done more than play God. He has written himself out of the world. And the Torah demands of the community to remove that person ourselves, even in the heart of the Temple. There are no symbols holy enough to lessen the horror of murder.
Prepared by Rabbi Shmuel Bowman, Director The Ellin Mitchell Hillel Program at Tel Aviv University Ramat Aviv, Israel.