Two men go into the forest to cut wood. As one swings his ax at a tree, the ax head flies off the handle and hits the other man, killing him. If this incident, described in Devarim 19:5, were to happen today, the death would certainly be ruled an accident and the man who swung the ax would not be considered liable either criminally or civilly. The Torah, however, says of the ax’s owner: “That man shall flee to one of these cities [of refuge] and live.”
The cities of refuge are first described in this week’s parsha. After explaining how the Land of Israel is to be apportioned among the tribes and the towns are assigned to the Levites, the Torah says:
“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 may flee. The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the manslayer may not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly…. Anyone, however, who strikes another with an iron object so that death results is a murderer; the murderer must be put to death…. The assembly shall protect the manslayer from the blood-avenger, and the assembly shall restore him to the city of refuge to which he fled, and there he shall remain until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the sacred oil.”
This is one of several instances in which the Torah enacts an elaborate legal structure that prevents people from acting in the heat of the moment, when they are in the grip of strong emotions. When a relative has been killed, even in a freak accident, it is understandable that a person’s first reaction is intense anger and a desire for vengeance. The cities of refuge provide protection for the person who unintentionally causes or contributes to such a death until a trial can be held.
The institution of a “cooling-off period” has great merit not only as a response to death, but also in matters of everyday life. One of the best bits of advice I know is that when you are angry or hurt and filled with the need to strike back at the person who hurt you, go ahead and write the e-mail telling that so-and-so just what you think. But let it sit in your “Drafts” folder for at least 24 hours before you hit “Send.” You just may find that you want to do a bit of editing first.
We all feel anger, outrage, a desire for vengeance, and other strong emotions from time to time. That’s part of being human. But acting in the grip of these feelings can lead to disaster. Before you tell your boss just where he can shove his job, seek out an emotional “city of refuge.” Follow the Torah’s guidance and first think calmly, make sure you have the facts, and only then decide what to do.