A deliberate killing of another human being results in the death of the offender at the hands of a designated blood avenger (Numbers 35:19). The Torah explicitly states that this can happen when the blood avenger meets the offender. If, however, the killing is accidental then the offender can flee to a safe location until a trial can take place. Furthermore, one witness is not enough to put the offender to death. The blood avenger may not kill the offender unless it somehow proven that the act was decisive (i.e. the offender actually did intend to kill the victim).
Accidents do happen, and it is much worse to decide to murder someone than to accidently harm them. This is the p’shat (literal interpretation) of our parasha. There is even more going on, however. The severity of the judgment is directly related to the decisiveness of the act. This serves as a guiding legal principle even in our system in the United States. Justice demands that the response to lawlessness depend on the intentionality of the offender. Blind decisiveness is not always a good thing. If I decide to kill someone in a moment of anger, it is not acceptable and will require a justified decisive response to bring a tikkun (correction) to the situation. Unfortunately, an underlying awareness of this principle gets to the heart of fears that can keep people from healthy decisive living. As long as the decision wasn’t mine, I cannot entirely be culpable for the results of my actions…right? With that said the punishment for the offender who accidently kills is exile to a very specific location for a very long period of time (verdicts for guilt in negligent homicide are no picnic either). Most deaths that result from accidental behavior involve negligence.
Heaven forbid that any of us face the situation where we are responsible (in any way) for taking the life of another person. Nevertheless, we can still learn a very good lesson about decisiveness from this section of our parasha: decisive action often leads to a decisive response (good or bad), while indecisiveness imprisons a person in the “what if’s” of life. Most of the time a little negligence in deciding to do the right thing, or not do the wrong thing, won’t seem to make much of a difference. Over time it does make a difference, even to the point where indecision becomes a decision all to its own and a person can find that life is one long series of being acted upon by others.
May we learn from our parasha that decisive action done out of anger is as out of balance as the failure to do the right thing out of fear of direct responsibility. Both extremes suggest that work needs to be done in the middah of decisiveness. May we walk the straight and narrow, decisively!