“Heaven Made Me Do It!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Mishpatim, serves as the basis of the Hebrew system of jurisprudence. It is the fourth most numerous parasha in terms of mitzvot, containing 53 commandments, 23 positive and 30 negative.

In this week’s parasha we find several fascinating and complex statutes governing the crimes of murder and manslaughter.

In Exodus 21:12 the Torah boldly declares, מַכֵּה אִישׁ וָמֵת, מוֹת יוּמָת , One who strikes a man so that he dies, shall surely be put to death. Although the Torah was not the first ancient source to declare this absolute rule, the Torah’s application of this law underscoring the sanctity of human life, was revolutionary.

Other legal systems, such as the Hammurabi Code of ancient Babylonia treated both perpetrators and victims of different social status differently. Wealthy perpetrators and those of the noble class were treated far better than women, poor men, children and slaves, and were subject to lesser penalties for many crimes and accidents.

The Torah, on the other hand, makes no distinction regarding the status of the perpetrator or the victim. In fact, if the perpetrator were a High Priest, the Torah states (Exodus 21:14), מֵעִם מִזְבְּחִי תִּקָּחֶנּוּ לָמוּת , the High Priest can be dragged from within the Sanctuary and the Altar to be put to death.

In Hammurabi’s Code, if one killed the daughter of one’s neighbor, the perpetrator’s daughter would be put to death. The punishment for killing a neighbor’s slave was simply a fine. Hammurabi’s laws were based on the concept of “chattel,” meaning the primacy of possessions and ownership. The Torah, boldly rejected that understanding. It revolutionized the concept of murder by introducing the idea of the sanctity of human life. Since every human is created in the image of G-d, taking a human’s life is equivalent to destroying part of G-d. Hence, there is no difference between one human being and the next or between one perpetrator and the next. The punishment is the same for all murderers and all thieves.

The Torah also takes into consideration the circumstances of homicide. The Torah in Exodus 21:13 declares, וַאֲשֶׁר לֹא צָדָה וְהָאֱ-לֹקִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ, וְשַׂמְתִּי לְךָ מָקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יָנוּס שָׁמָּה , But, for one who has not lain in ambush and G-d had caused it to come to His hand, I shall provide you a place to which he shall flee.

Therefore, in the instance of accidental homicide, where the taking of life was not premeditated, the killer may run to a city of refuge.

In ancient Israel there were six official cities of refuge– three in the lands east of the Jordan and three on the lands west of the Jordan. According to Maimonides (Laws of Murder and Preserving Life 8:8), all 48 Levitical cities served as cities of refuge where perpetrators could run to escape the wrath of the next of kin who wished to kill them.

Rashi cites a fascinating and perplexing answer to what the meaning of וְהָאֱ-לֹקִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ , that G-d made the accidental death happen.

Rashi cites the example of two people, one who had killed intentionally and the other who had killed unintentionally, but because of the lack of witnesses, the one who killed intentionally was not put to death, and the one who killed unintentionally was not exiled to a city of refuge. In order to make certain that both receive their proper punishments, G-d causes both of these people to be together in the same inn. The one who killed unintentionally ascends a ladder and falls on the one who killed intentionally, who is sitting under the ladder, killing him. Since there are now witnesses, the one who killed unintentionally goes to exile and the one who killed intentionally is now dead. It is in this manner that the Al-mighty holds those who had previously escaped justice accountable.

The commentators look at this passage as confirmation that nothing in this world happens accidentally, affirming that G-d truly controls everything. The Talmud (Ketuvot 30a) states that everything is in the hands of G-d, with the exception of colds and traps (animal traps). Others say, Brachot 33b, all is in Heaven’s control with the exception of fear of G-d. G-d cannot cause a person to believe in Him, since that would be coercion, not belief. The Talmud (Hulin 7b) states that a person cannot stub a finger (or toe) in this world unless it is decreed to happen by Heaven.

Where then is free will? Clearly, there is free will since every human being has the ability to defy G-d. Contrary to popular opinion, camels do not smoke, only humans are “intelligent” enough to smoke and have the free will to do things that are harmful to themselves.

On the other hand, free will is clearly limited by fate of birth and environment.

Even those endowed with great musical talents cannot become great musicians if they have no access to musical instruments or musical training. Obviously, there are things that are beyond human free will. One cannot be short of stature or small-boned and expect to become a professional basketball or football player–even those who are endowed with superior natural talents for these sports.

Clearly, much of human life is predestined and fated by our genetic makeup. Similarly, our natural endowments, our intelligence, our height, our strength, our country and continent of origin, the century in which we were born, are all factors that are predetermined for every human being. No matter our aspirations, little can be changed. Yet, there is free will, though it is limited to those areas where free will is granted by the Ultimate Power, by G-d.

While it is true that many things in life are predetermined, every human being is still blessed with abundant free will to make correct choices and to perform meritorious deeds that will enrich the world and bring great blessing to others.

G-d surely rules the world, but we humans still have the ability to steer to the left or to the right, and accomplish great things.

May you be blessed.

Please Note: This Shabbat is Shabbat Parashat Shekalim. On this Shabbat, an additional Torah portion, known as Parashat Shekalim, is read. It is the first portion of four additional thematic Torah portions that are read on the Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim.

This week’s supplementary Torah reading is found in Exodus 30:11-16 and speaks of the requirement for all the men of Israel, aged 20 and above, to bring a half-shekel in order to be counted as a member of the People of Israel. In later years, these shekels were donated to the Temple in anticipation of the festival of Passover, when funding for the daily sacrifice had to be renewed.