This week’s Torah portion contains a theme that in the ancient world was peculiar to the religion of Israel – the compassion, care and grace of their patron God. A historically popular approach to theology is a bifurcation of the two Testimonies of Scripture. According to this approach, the older testament is presented as a harsh, inflexible and graceless document, that’s sole purpose is to point to the futility of human effort to do good and ennobling acts. But here in Matot, we see the true purpose of Torah – teaching and direction to move Israel and human kind from their natural inclinations toward violence and vengeance, and toward Hashem’s highest standards of peace and mercy.
The concept of `cities of refuge’ is unique to any in the ancient world, and contrary to human nature. The pronouncement `an eye for an eye’ should not be viewed as legislation, but rather as an accommodation to the hardness of the human heart. Here the Holy One ordains the Levim as peacemakers and grace givers. Their inheritances are places of refuge, safe places where those who have made mistakes are shielded from excessive retribution. With this provision, HaShem infers that vengeance is not an appropriate human agency.
There is an enormous lesson for us in this ordinance. The American Justice system is the finest in the world. Founded upon these principles of mercy and grace, the American experiment was the first in the modern world to assume innocence over guilt, and to center itself upon rehabilitation rather than vengeance. But what is our personal responsibility? Each of us is able to provide a safe place for others in their time of need. To not only model forgiveness, but to make allowances for the shortcomings and character defects of others during their process of development. Of course this would beg the question—“where do we draw the line?” Does this mean that condoms should be dispensed in schools since adolescence cannot possibly be expected to control any active urges or desire, despite the potential emotional, spiritual and physical damage? The scriptures teach forgiveness, flexibility, and mercy – but not license toward indiscretion.
Interestingly, in the “Torah from the Mount” it is Yeshua the paradigm of grace who establishes a higher and more demanding standard of Torah. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ And also I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” The “newer testament” frequently records Yeshua extending forgiveness and grace to those in need – but he also exhorts those he engages to `go and sin no more.’
If we see the Holy Scriptures as a continuous whole, we can then appreciate a progressive revelation, whereby Hashem makes allowance for the moral shortcomings of humankind, as well as our need for shelter, care and direction. This should never be understood as an allowance for sin, but rather preparation for greatness.