The Uncertainty Principle

Written by Rabbi Stephen Baars on . Posted in Torah

We have all experienced misery, but few people try to understand it.

This week, we learn that the punishment for an accidental murder (i.e., manslaughter) is that the perpetrator is to be exiled to what the Torah calls a city of refuge (ir miklat). What if the accidental murderer (let’s call him Fred) attempts to leave? Let’s say Fred wants to visit his new granddaughter, or go to his nephew’s bar mitzvah.

 The answer: If Fred strays from the ir miklat, then the victim’s next of kin (goel hadam, literally “redeemer of the blood”) is entitled to kill him. If he wants to ensure his safety, Fred is to live in the ir miklat until either he dies or the current kohen gadol (high priest) dies, whichever comes first (Bamidbar 35:25).

Interestingly, our sages tell us that the mother of the kohen gadol would visit these inmates (they weren’t in a prison in the traditional sense, but were essentially open-air prisoners). She would bring them parcels of food so they would not pray for the death of her son.

Let us ponder this for a minute: Say two men, independently of each other, each accidentally kill someone; but the two killings are a month apart, and in between them the kohen gadol dies. One perpetrator goes free after just a few days, and the other spends the rest of his life in the ir miklat. Is that fair?

My cousin is battling cancer (please pray for her: Penina bas Zissa Fraya). She went through the all-too-common treatments. When she called the doctor to find out the results, the doctor told her (I am not making this up) that he was going on vacation and would let her know when he got back.

I can deal with knowing, but I can’t deal with knowing soon as opposed to now.

What should the punishment be for someone who accidentally killed another? It depends on who you think the victim is. Yes, for sure, the one who died is a victim, but there is another — our sense of security and well-being was killed. In this sense, the rest of society is a victim.

When Charles Lindbergh’s son was kidnapped in 1932, it changed the way parents all over America looked out for their children. Were people murdered before this? Unfortunately, yes. But kidnapping children? No, not like this, and it killed people’s sense of security even though the actual risk had probably not really changed.

On a deeper level, there is no such thing as an accidental murderer. When it’s your children in the driveway, you make sure to check your mirrors three times. When life is precious, you make sure you are focused. People may drop vases, they may drop cameras. But they don’t drop babies. You can only “accidentally” kill someone if you have lost the sense of how valuable life truly is.

Life is precious, and this accidental murderer didn’t get that. Now he’s made us all nervous, because we just don’t know if it’s safe. This is why his punishment is that he too lives a life of uncertainty.

And who’s fault is that?

The kohen gadol’s.

It is the kohen gadol’s job to teach the ultimate Jewish value: that life is precious. So beautifully, the Torah comes full circle, with he too living with a sense of insecurity in that someone might be praying for his demise.

Sometimes it simply cannot be helped, but invariably people think that being vague is better than delivering bad news, because they simply do not understand the misery that is uncertainty.

By Rabbi Stephen Baars 

Originally from London, Rabbi Stephen Baars resides in Rockville, Maryland, and serves as executive director of Aish Seminars. An educator and marriage counselor for the past 25 years, Rabbi Baars and his wife, Ruth, are blessed with seven children. Learn more about Rabbi Baars at and