In this week’s double portion of Mattot-Masei, we see the people preparing to enter the land, and clarifying the borders of the territory and how cities are to be used. Forty-eight of the cities are to go to the priests, and six of them shall be designated as cities of refuge. These cities of refuge are places where a person who has killed someone may flee to avoid retribution by the victim’s family. Some translations say that the murderer should flee to a city of refuge, but it’s absolutely not a murderer – it’s someone who accidentally killed another person with whom there had never been enmity in the past while performing a legal activity. For example, our portion continues that if a person pushed someone without malice and they died, if they threw an object without premeditation and it hit someone and they died, or dropped something without seeing the victim before they dropped it, then the unintended consequences of their actions mean that they’re partially liable but not liable enough to deserve the death penalty (Num. 35:22-23). Later in Deuteronomy (19:5), we learn of another specific example of such killing – when a person is chopping a tree and the blade comes off the axe and kills a person. In such a case, the unintended consequence of chopping a tree is the ending of a human life, so just as with the stone or the accidental nudge, the person with the axe has to flee and atone in a city of refuge, and has to get there before the family of the deceased find them and kill them out of revenge.
Both the Mishnah and Talmud, the two major law codes that followed on from Torah, address many similar situations, for example, what happens if a person is throwing stones from one place to another and a person walks into their domain and is killed by a flying stone? What if two people are playing catch with a stone and one misses the catch and is killed? Should the person responsible whose actions had the unintended consequence of someone else’s death go into banishment, flee to a city of refuge, or face criminal proceedings?
Interestingly, at the end of this week’s double-portion, we read of more unintended consequences. Last week, Cantor Lianna spoke of Zelophehad who died with five daughters and no sons, meaning that there was no-one to receive his inheritance. The daughters entreat Moses to give them the inheritance instead. Moses asks God, who says that their plea is just and that they should receive the inheritance. The law is changed and from that point on, if a man dies with no sons, the inheritance goes to his daughters instead. But…. there’s an unintended negative consequence of that change in the law. Part of the laws of inheritance were to keep property within each tribe, and tribal identity was patriarchal. Women could marry someone from any tribe since they didn’t own property. So, the change of law for the daughters of Zelophehad created an unintended problem. If a daughter who has received inheritance marries someone from another tribe, the property goes to that tribe and doesn’t stay in the tribe it originated from, thereby diminishing the inheritance and the tribal property. Moses hears the unintended consequence and rules that no property may change from one tribe to another, so the daughters of Zelophehad marry their cousins to ensure that their inheritance stays in the tribe.
This is often touted as an example of ritual creativity and of defending the rights of women within the context of a strictly patriarchal society. Others see it less positively and express concern that the freedom given to the daughters of Zelophehad by God in last week’s reading are limited by Moses in this week’s. My focus tonight is on a differing viewpoint, though - on the reality of unintended consequences, because even God did not foresee the consequences of God’s ruling last week! That’s quite extraordinary. The law from God did not work in the human realm, the people complained, God changed the law, then the people complained that the change created new problems. Theologically speaking, I think that’s remarkable. This is God who grows and learns with us, God who makes mistakes. I find something very refreshing in that. If nothing else, that gives us permission to forgive ourselves for the unintended consequences of our actions – if God can’t always foresee the unintended consequences, then it should be okay when we don’t, either. That doesn’t mean that we should be reckless or thoughtless, of course, but it means that everything is a work in progress and it’s incumbent upon us not to react aggressively to a negative unintended consequence. This goes back to the cities of refuge – who is the person seeking refuge from? From the family of the deceased who are looking for revenge. Torah just accepts that as a perfectly normal human response, but why? Why not focus on the opposite, especially since this was not deliberate murder. But maybe that’s the point – maybe Torah is presenting us with two differing models of unintended consequences, and showing us that we have a choice in how to respond. We can respond with anger, or we can respond calmly by changing the system around us.
I appreciate, though, that that perspective speaks of privilege. When the unintended consequences repeatedly wear someone down, I can understand anger. Our lives of luxury have definite negative consequences for others around the world. We may not know the specific consequences of each individual act, but we do know the unintended consequences of our lifestyles, and most of us, myself included, do very little to change those lifestyles to minimize those consequences, because of the comfort of privilege and because of how difficult it is to avoid those consequences to someone half way across the world in a globalised capitalistic society. There are other unintended consequences of our choices, such as perpetuating racist or sexist social structures, for which perhaps sometimes the response needs to be calm change and sometimes needs to be rage. I understand and appreciate that. But what we’re talking about here, though, is not systemic social structures or the consequences of how society is set up, but, at least with the cities of refuge, we’re talking about the immediate, local unintended consequences of one’s individual’s actions.
According to our tradition, even those individual actions can have enormous unintended consequences. The most famous example of that comes from Talmud, Tractate Gittin (55b), in the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa. A wealthy man means to invite Kamsa to a party, but the wealthy man’s servant accidentally invites Bar Kamsa, the wealthy man’s enemy. Bar Kamsa turns up to the party, and the wealthy man orders him to leave. Bar Kamsa begs not to be humiliated in front of the man’s guests, offering to pay for his food, then offering to pay for half of the total expenses of the party then even offering to pay for the entire party. The wealthy man is adamant, though, and Bar Kamsa is forced to leave the party. But there were Rabbis at the party and Bar Kamsa is so angry at them for not defending him that he visits with Caesar and says that the Rabbis are planning to overthrow him. Caesar is skeptical as to whether or not this is true and sends an animal to be sacrificed by the Rabbis. On the way to the Rabbis, though, Bar Kamsa knicks the animal, thereby blemishing it. The Rabbis reject the sacrifice, which Caesar then sees as proof of rebellion, which leads to the Romans destroying the Temple and exiling the Jews. All of that was the unintended consequence of delivering a party invitation to the wrong person, or the unintended consequence of being a terrible host, or the unintended consequence of not defending the honor of someone being embarrassed. Seemingly small decisions can have enormous negative consequences. Bar Kamsa responses with anger, just as Torah expects families to respond in the case of accidental death. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can respond as the heads of the clan of Gilead son of Makir do, and try to resolve the issue because, as I said before, if God Almighty didn’t foresee the unintended consequences of something, we need to allow ourselves and others an opportunity to address the negative consequences of something they said or did.
There is real irony in terms of unintended consequences when it comes to the law of cities of refuge. A person must stay in a city of refuge until the High Priest dies. At that point, it is said that the person has atoned and then they may leave the city of refuge and the victim’s family have no claim against that person. What’s the unintended consequence of that ruling? That everyone in the cities of refuge are hoping that the High Priest will die quickly! Mishnah (Makkot 11a) addresses this, saying that the mother of the High Priest provides clothing and food for those in the cities of refuge so that they think favorably of her son and don’t pray for his early death! So… a law that says that the inhabitants of cities of refuge go free when the High Priest dies had the unintended negative consequence of the mother of the High Priest having to supply six cities’ worth of people with food and clothing! In other words, even Torah sometimes doesn’t see the unintended negative consequences of its own laws.
So, this week’s Torah portion and its subsequent commentaries remind us of the need to consider the consequences of our actions, and also give us permission to forgive ourselves for not foreseeing all the unintended consequences of everything we say or do, because even God and Torah don’t foresee all the negative unintended consequences. It also gives us permission to express frustration at the negative unintended consequences of the actions of others, but particularly extends an invitation to us all to be forgiving of the unintended consequences of the actions of others. And, ultimately, it gives us a theological insight, an opportunity to relate to God in times when we make mistakes, a chance to find God not just in perfection but in the inevitable imperfection of human life. So, may we use this week’s Torah reading as an opportunity not to lament our mistakes but to learn from them and to connect with God through them, and let us use it as an opportunity to respond kindly to the mistakes of others and to connect with God through them as well. May such moments be ones not of rage but of forgiveness, understanding and true connection, and let us say, Amen.