“Kol-make-nefesh bishgaga….”

Foster_Story_OTB_173_FleeingToTheCityOfRefuge Tomorrow, in Shabbat Torah service, we read Parashat Matot Mas’ei, which I always look forward to, particularly because of the cantillation of Numbers 35:5 (I discuss this verse in the fourth chapter of Mind over Memes). The verse has two trop symbols (and melodies), the yerach ben yomo and the karne parah, which occur nowhere else in the Torah. Beyond that, each of four instances of the phrase “alpayim baammah” (two thousand cubits) has a different trop melody, so that you hear glorious variety in the repetition. (You can listen to my recording of the verse here.) There have been many interpretations of this–but whatever its meanings, I love hearing and chanting it and am not alone in this. Last summer, this Shabbat (which fell in early August), I got to chant these verses at B’nai Jeshurun. A fellow leyner (chanter of Torah), Sharon Anstey, came up to me afterwards to talk about that very verse and trop, and she mentioned it later in a beautiful piece for the High Holidays.

But today my mind and ear is on a different part of the parsha. Verses 9 through 15 give instructions for the appointment of cities of refuge for all those manslayers who killed someone by accident (“kol-make-nefesh bishgaga”). The occurrence of this phrase in verse 15 stands out in a Torah reading, because it comes at the end of an aliya and therefore has the “sof aliya” melodic phrase and a deceleration. It rings in my ear like jubilation and warning: “kol-make-nefesh bishgaga.” The idea is that those who killed in error, or who may have killed in error, should have a place of refuge until they can be judged by the congregation. Without this, people would just be killing each other back and forth in revenge, and mistakes would be treated the same as intentional crimes. “Bishgaga” means not only “by mistake” but “unawares.” In Judaism, those who commit sins unawares are still responsible, but in a different way from those who commit them by intent. The distinction is of great importance; sins and mistakes are not all treated as equivalent.

One of the great problems of today’s culture of online accusation is its outrage over missteps, even unintended ones. People do not have a place of refuge; they do not get to wait for a fair trial. Reactivity is the norm. I don’t have a Twitter account; I am not at all attracted to what goes on there. But Twitter is not a separate sphere; tweets have now become part of everyday reality. They get quoted in the news. They might be brought up and used against someone years after the fact.

If there is one thing I wish for the world around me, it is discernment: distinguishing one situation from another, allowing enough time to assemble the facts, granting everyone fair judgment, and giving a refuge, even within ourselves, for mistakes and unclear situations. The internal city of refuge may be the most important of all: a solitude for sorting out thoughts and actions, a place to go in the mind.

 

Art credit: Fleeing to the City of Refuge (Numbers 35:11-28). From Charles Foster, The Story of the Bible, 1884.

 

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