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The Uncertainty Principle

Matot-Masay (Numbers 30-36 )

by Rabbi Stephen Baars

"Curiouser and curiouser!" Cried Alice..."
-- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

We have all experienced misery, but few people try to understand it.

This week we learn that the punishment for an accidental murder (manslaughter) is that the perpetrator is to be exiled to what the Torah calls a refuge city. He is to live there until he dies, or until the Cohen Godol (High Priest) dies (Bamidbar 35:25). Whichever comes first.

What if he attempts to leave? Let's say he wants to visit his new granddaughter, or go to his nephew's bar-mitzvah. Then the victim's next of kin is entitled to kill him.

Interestingly, our sages tell us, that the mother of the Cohen Godol would visit these inmates and bring them food parcels so they would not pray for the death of her son.

Let us think how strange this is. Two man-slaughterers, separately kill two people within a month of each other. But in-between them the Cohen Godol dies. One goes free after just a few days and the other spends the rest of his life in isolation. Is that fair?

Allow me to describe the second worst misery. Getting a call from your doctor with really bad news. Failing a test. Getting a rejection letter from the school you were hoping to go to.

Now, let me tell you the worst misery.

My cousin is battling cancer (please pray for her: Penina bas Zissa Fraya) she went thru the all too common treatments. Then, she called the doctor to find the results. The doctor told her, he was going on vacation and would let her know when he gets back (I am not making this up.)

I should mention she lives in a country that has socialized medicine.

I can deal with knowing, I can't deal with knowing soon.

What should the punishment be for someone who accidentally killed another?

It depends on who you think the victim is.

Yes, for sure, the one who died. But there is another victim - our sense of security and well-being was killed. Therefore, the rest of society is a victim.

When Charles Lindbergh's son was kidnapped in 1932, it changed the way parents all over America looked out for their children. Were people murdered before this? Unfortunately yes. But kidnapping children?! No. Not like this, and it killed people's sense of security. Even though the actual risk had probably not really changed.

People often remark how safe they feel in Israel. And it's hard to explain when you are living in a very small area surrounded by brutal enemies. I think this will help understand. In America we are not worried about inner city drug lords gunning us down at Harris Teeter. We are worried about the other guy on the beltway falling asleep at the wheel and (God forbid) swerving into our lane.

In Israel, they don't worry about the careless manslaughter, they worry about the crazies in Gaza. And those they have pretty much locked up.

On a deeper level, there is no such thing as an accidental murderer. When it's your children in the driveway, you make sure to check your mirrors three times. When life is precious, you make sure you are focused. People may drop vases, they may drop camera's. But they don't drop babies. You can only "accidentally" kill someone if you have lost the sense of how valuable life truly is.

Life is precious, and this manslaughter didn't get that. And so he made us all nervous. Because we just don't know if it's safe. And so his punishment is that he too lives a life of uncertainty.

And who's fault is that?

The Cohen Godol - because it's his job to teach the ultimate Jewish value - that life is precious. And so beautifully, the Torah comes full circle, he too has to live with a sense of insecurity, that someone might be praying for his demise.

Sometimes it simply cannot be helped, but invariably people think that being vague is better than delivering bad news, that's because they simply do not understand misery.

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