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MOSES AND THE CITIES OF REFUGE: A PERSONAL REDEMPTION

Refuge or not, Moses said "Any commandment that can be fulfilled, I will." * If the Egyptian didn't warrant death, Moses would be considered an intentional killer, ineligible for refuge within the cities of refuge. * On the third reading of Parshas VaEs'chanan.

by ChatGTP and Bing AI

Deuteronomy 4:41-42 describes Moses' dedication to fulfilling God's commandment: "Then Moses set aside three cities east of the Jordan, to which a manslayer could flee." According to the esteemed commentator Rashi, Moses felt driven to implement this commandment as quickly as possible, even before the cities within Canaan were designated as refuges. As Rashi attributes it to Moses, "Any commandment that can be fulfilled, I will fulfill."


But what exactly prompted Moses to act with such urgency, setting aside the cities even before they provided refuge?


To help us understand, the Rogatchover Gaon, Rabbi Yosef Rosen's Tzofnat Paneach delves into a passage from the Yalkut Shimoni. It suggests that Moses' reaction to God's commandment was deeply personal, stemming from his experience of killing an Egyptian. "I am obligated to say a song, for even with me this matter occurred that I killed the Egyptian," Moses is reported to have said in the Yalkut Shimoni.


Moses' response might seem perplexing given that his killing of the Egyptian was deemed justified as the Egyptian was maltreating a Hebrew slave, therefore deserving death. "And this is astonishing," the text in the Yalkut Shimoni reads, "for he killed him justly, for [the Egyptian] was a married woman’s husband and struck an Israelite whose judgment was death." Were it otherwise, and the Egyptian didn't warrant death, Moses would be considered an intentional killer, ineligible for refuge within the sanctuary cities.


Tzofnat Paneach further explores the complexities of Moses' actions, citing the words of a certain gaon and the Rambam (Maimonides) in the Laws of One Who Kills His Fellow Without Witnesses: "There is no man and he struck the Egyptian’ (Exodus 2:12), as it is stated... that we learn from this that he is liable for death, since the Holy One, blessed be He, did not summon witnesses." Given the absence of witnesses, Moses might have feared he was culpable for the Egyptian's death.


This fear is said to have escalated when Dathan and Abiram learned of his action. Although Moses managed to escape Pharaoh, he refrained from expressing his gratitude through song. The Tzofnat Paneach explains, "for we hold that one does not say a song unless he is worthy of the miracle that was done for him. And Moses thought that he was liable for death. And even though a miracle was done for him nonetheless he was not worthy of a miracle."


A significant change of perspective occurs when Moses learns about the purpose of the cities of refuge — to serve as sanctuary for unintentional killers. He then recognizes that his killing of the Egyptian might be seen as unintentional due to his erroneous judgment. As the Tzofnat Paneach references from the Taz in Yoreh Deah, "For one who errs in judgment is called unintentional... And his judgment is in exile and he was worthy of a miracle and properly obligated to say a song."


In conclusion, the commentary offered by the Tzofnat Paneach deeply examines Moses' swift action in setting up the cities of refuge. It suggests that Moses' personal experience and subsequent realization of his unintentional act played a significant role in his reaction to God's commandment. This newfound understanding of his actions as unintentional deemed him deserving of a miracle, obliging him to sing a song of praise.

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