> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > The Guiding Light

Developing Sensitivity Through the Mitzvot

Masay (Numbers 33-36 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you cross the Jordan to the land of Canaan, you shall designate cities for yourselves, cities of refuge shall they be for you, and a killer shall flee there - one who takes a life unintentionally. (Bamidbar, 35:10-12)

Three cities shall you designate on the other side of the Jordan, and three cities shall you designate in the land of Canaan; they shall be cities of refuge. (Bamidbar, 35:14)

Three cities: Even though there were nine tribes in the land of Canaan and here there were only two and a half tribes, [yet] they have the same number of cities of refuge: This is because in Gilead [which was located in the two and a half tribes], there were many murderers. (Rashi, 35:14: sv.)

Parshas Massei discusses the cities of refuge; the places designated for unintentional murderers to reside in until the death of the Kohen Gadol. God instructs Moshe Rabbeinu to designate three of the six cities of refuge on the side of the Jordan. Rashi, quoting Chazal,(1) points out that the population there was far smaller than in the land of Israel, therefore it is difficult to understand why so many cities of refuge were placed there. He answers that there were many murderers in that area and accordingly there was a need for a proportionally greater number of cities of refuge. The commentaries ask that this answer does not seem to suffice because it states that there were more deliberate murderers, yet they do not go to the cities of refuge - only people who killed through carelessness are sent there!(2) The Maharal answers that because there were so many deliberate murders in their vicinity they became less sensitive to the value of life in general. Consequently they were less careful to avoid harming others during potentially dangerous activities, and ultimately more accidental deaths occurred.(3)

The Maharal's explanation brings to light an important principle with regards to how we relate to the more heinous sins in the Torah. A person may think that sins such as murder and idol worship are of no relevance to him because he has no yetser hara in those areas. Whilst this may be true, we learn from the Maharal that even a person who has no inclination to murder may be subject to a slight lack of sensitivity to the seriousness of such a sin, and as a result he will be slightly less careful when engaged in potentially dangerous activities. In this way we see that when the Torah commands a person not to kill it is insufficient to merely not kill others. It is also imperative that he should develop such a high level of sensitivity to the value of life that it will permeate all areas that are related to the value of life.

Indeed many mitzvot and laws reflect the idea that there are more subtle levels to each mitzvah. For example, the early commentaries teach us about the concept of avizrayhu (4) to the most serious sins. These are extensions of the basic mitzvah to include other forms of behavior that are manifestations of the same flaw that are found in the sin. For example, the Gemara tells us that embarrassing someone in public is akin to murdering them.(5) Rabbeinu Yonah takes this Gemara literally and rules that it is also forbidden to embarrass a person publicly even to save one's own life. The question is that the only mitzvots that one must die rather than transgress are murder, idol worship and immorality so how can Rabbeinu Yonah add embarrassing someone? He answers that it is an avizrayhu of murder; in this way we are being taught that the pain caused to a person when he is embarrassed is somewhat akin to that of being killed and therefore it assumes the severity of the sin of murder.(6) There are other prohibitions in the Torah and Rabbinical sources that reflect the same principle as the more serious sins but on a far more subtle level. For example, the prohibition to not steal is expanded to also apply to gezel sheina (stealing one's sleep by wrongly waking them up) and geneivas daas (tricking people).(7)

The Rambam applied this concept to all mitzvah observance. He made this point in response to a question from a righteous man before Yom Kippur. The man approached him with regards to the confession of our sins that we make on Yom Kippur. He argued that he did not commit many of those sins, and therefore it would be falsehood for him to say the vidui (confession). The Rambam replied that, in fact the man had committed all the sins in the vidui. He explained that the confession does not only refer to the actual sin, but also to the numerous layers of each sin that are relevant to even the greatest people. This involves a total revulsion of all manifestations of the sin, even the most subtle. For example a person may have never actively committed the sin of immorality but any slight impure thoughts in that area constitute a transgression in that sin. Thus the Rambam taught that for a person to be totally shalem (complete) in any mitzvah requires constant self-development.

The prohibition to not kill may not seem relevant to most of us, yet the Maharal teaches us that it teaches us to develop our sensitivity to such a level where we are so careful with other people's lives that accidental deaths become unheard of. The same applies to all mitzvot and teaches us that they are not merely rules to be kept, rather each mitzvah teaches important principles that must be applied on many levels.


1. Makkos, 9b.

2. See Ramban, 35:14, Tosefos, Makkos 9b, for answers to this question. In this essay we will focus on the approach of the Maharal.

3. Gur Aryeh, Bamidbar, 35:14.

4. This is most commonly translated as accessories.

5. Bava Metsia, 59a.

6. Shaarei Teshuva, 3:139.

7. Whether transgressing of gezel sheina and geneivas daas constitutes an actual transgression of 'do not steal' is subject to discussion. Regardless the point here is that the root reasons for the prohibition to not steal objects or money clearly also applies to these other sins.



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