by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, we once again encounter the concept of the City of Refuge. It is to the City of Refuge that an accidental murderer runs to escape the vengeance of the next of kin who has the right to kill the perpetrator if he catches him before he reaches the city. Although it is often misunderstood, the institution known as the City of Refuge is a thoroughly revolutionary law, underscoring that any negligent action that results in the death of a human being is inexcusable. (For a more in-depth discussion, see Matot-Masei 5762-2002).

Parashat Shoftim not only reiterates many of the laws that were taught previously in the Torah concerning accidental murder, but also offers several keen insights into those laws and related matters.

In Deuteronomy 19:4, the Torah states: “V’zeh d’var ha’roh’tzay’ach ah’sher yah’noos shah’mah va’chai, ah’sher yah’keh eht ray’ay’hoo biv’lee dah’aht, v’hoo loh so’nay loh mit’mohl shil’shohm.” This is the matter of the murderer who shall flee there [to the City of Refuge] and live: One who will strike his fellow without knowledge, and he did not hate him from yesterday or before yesterday. The Torah then presents an example of two people chopping trees in the forest, when the metal head of the ax of one woodcutter slips off, hits the other and kills him. In such an instance, the accidental murderer flees to the City of Refuge, is subjected to a court trial, and remains in the city until the death of the High Priest.

In tractate Sanhedrin 27b, there is a fascinating discussion, based on the verse concerning accidental murder, regarding the subject of interpersonal relations. When discussing the difference between friend and foe, Rabbi Judah defines a friend as a “shush’bin,” a groomsman or a best man at a wedding, indicating a long-time intimate friendship. When defining an enemy, Rabbi Judah says that any man, who by reason of enmity, has not spoken to another for three days is considered an enemy. The Sifrei records that Rabbi Judah derived this definition from the fact that the verse concerning accidental murder states, “mit’mohl shil’shohm,” from yesterday or before yesterday. In explaining this expression, Rabbi Judah notes that “yesterday” indicates two days, and “before yesterday” means a third day. How amazingly insightful the Torah is. From two simple Hebrew words, “mit’mohl shil’shohm,” indicating that the accidental murderer had not previously hated the victim, we learn that one who fails to greet his friend for three days is considered an enemy!

How can such a simple act of neglect transform someone into an instant enemy? After all, what does it mean to greet a friend or not greet a friend? To greet a friend, in its fullest sense, means to embrace that person, expressing profound kinship with another human being. On the other hand, failing to greet a friend is akin to denying that person’s humanity. So great is the affront that our rabbis teach us in the Mishnah, Brachot 2:1, that even when reciting the Shema prayer one may interrupt this sacred prayer to greet another out of respect. Returning greetings during the breaks between the sections of the Shema is also permitted. Rabbi Judah maintains that even in the middle of a section of the Shema one may offer greetings out of fear and return them out of respect. During the breaks, one may greet another out of respect and return greetings to anyone.

So corrosive is enmity regarded by Judaism that even hating one’s friend in one’s heart is explicitly prohibited by the Torah in Leviticus 19:17, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” The Talmud, in P’sachim 113b, explains that when one sees a friend or neighbor violate a law of the Torah, and, despite a personal rebuke, the violator refuses to repent, it is permitted to hate such a sinner until he repents. Yet, even such an unrepentant sinner, who needs help to load or unload his animal, is still entitled to help from others.

Rabbi Judah teaches in Ethics of Our Fathers 2:16 that hatred of one’s fellow actually “drives a man from this world.” This is understood to mean that such hatred results in a shortened life, or cuts a person off from human society. Even more dramatically, an opinion cited in Derech Eretz Rabah 11 states that one who hates his neighbor is equal to one who spills blood.

In a powerful rebuke of the behavior of the ancients, the Talmud in Yoma 9b teaches that the second Temple was destroyed because of “sin’at chee’nam,” wanton and baseless hatred among the people at the time. In response to this disheartening statement, Rabbi Abraham Issac Kook (the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, 1865-1935) offers the people hope by declaring, “If we have been destroyed, and the world together with us has been destroyed–-because of wanton hatred, it can be rebuilt, and the world can be rebuilt as well–-because of wanton, purposeless love.”

Many are familiar with the popular aphorism found in Ethics of Our Fathers, 4:1, “Who is a hero? He who is able to conquer his temper.” The sages in Avot D’Rabbee Natan 23:1 say that there is an even greater heroism than controlling one’s anger. They ask: “Who is the ultimate hero? He who is able to transform his enemy into a friend.”

May you be blessed.