Perhaps you heard about the traffic accident in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida in early June which involved tennis star Venus Williams. She had driven her vehicle out into an intersection, and another vehicle struck her SUV after their light turned green. The passenger in the second car died from his injuries, and the driver is still in serious condition. At first, the police report cited Venus Williams with running a red light into the intersection. Eventually, a surveillance video from a nearby location clearly showed the turn of events. Williams’ vehicle followed another vehicle into the intersection while the light was still green. Williams had to wait for an oncoming car to turn, and at that point, she was out in the middle of the intersection with her light turning red, and the traffic to her right saw their light turn green. That was when the other vehicle struck her SUV.
It didn’t really matter whether Venus Williams was at fault or not when it came to her response to this sad occurrence. When she was asked about the accident while at Wimbledon, Williams broke down into tears, saying how devastated she was by what happened. She held her head in her hand for a few moments and left the room, coming back in several minutes to complete the interview session.
The final determinations in this case have not yet been made in relation to the accident.
But what we know is this – it was a tragedy. And Venus Williams found herself in a place where she never would have chosen to be. And even if she was not at fault, she seems to have felt a sense of responsibility because of her involvement in what occurred.
I found in this situation an echo of a passage in the Torah reading for this Shabbat.
Generally, the Torah insists that we assume responsibility for what we do, and it outlines the consequences if we choose wrong over right, evil over good. Ancient rituals directed the Israelites how to overcome sin through sacrifices which they brought to the priests and through resolving to change their ways.
Yet, sometimes there are bad things that happen not by choice, but by accident or happenstance. What if we are party to a tragedy that could not be averted, something in which we were involved by being in the wrong place at the wrong time? One might think that if our intention was not to do wrong or harm, then we could walk away without taking responsibility.
But that is not what the Torah says. At the end of the book of Numbers, the parashah Mas’ei described the process by which six cities of refuge would be created to where people could flee under certain circumstances in a case where a life was lost. The section that has always most intrigued me focuses on rules applied to someone who committed an act of unintentional, non-malicious manslaughter.
In such a case, a relative of the victim was bound to seek out the person who caused the unintended death in order to restore the balance between their families. The “blood avenger” usually had the right to take the life the manslayer almost immediately, except for the fact that, in this situation, it was up to the community to judge if the act was intentional or not. If not, the person could stay in the city of refuge until the High Priest there died, at which point his or her sentence of being under an ancient version of “house arrest” would end.
I often wonder how the person guilty of unintentionally causing the death must have felt. He or she likely was overcome with great remorse, running over in his or her mind what happened and how it could have been avoided. There was likely a sense of relief at still being alive, free from the threat of death at the hands of the avenging relative of the victim. Yet, this person was still serving a sentence, unable to leave the city of refuge for an undetermined amount of time. If anything, these rules reflected an ancient sense of the sanctity of life. Perhaps the sanctuary status provided by the city of refuge enabled the manslayer to understand the notion of responsibility towards the community and to himself or herself, along with a feeling of empathy towards the victim’s family.
I have always believed that the sentence of confinement to the city of refuge, in this case, illustrates what it means to acknowledge wrongdoing even when there was no evil motive. According to the Torah, one’s presence and involvement in a tragic moment carries with it a feeling of guilt and remorse, even if there was no real blame that could be assigned to anyone.
Unfortunately, we see too many examples of leaders and public figures who find ways to deflect both responsibility and blame. It may be with a publicly uttered excuse or a dodge offered in a court setting. Or it may be with a declaration that names someone else who supposedly did something worse, when the situations may have been totally different. This, of course, may happen in families, in classrooms and in workplaces as well as in the public sphere. It may seem human to say that “he or she did it,” or “he or she did something worse than I did, so why focus on me”? But it’s still not right.
In the Torah, the person who unintentionally caused the death of a fellow human being knew that taking responsibility was the best option. And so, this person waited patiently in the city of refuge, understanding that there were consequences to most any action, but feeling fortunate to be alive, knowing that freedom would come one day.
As we make our choices every day, may our sense of duty lead to greater honesty, fairness, and goodness for us and for our world. And may our empathy in the face of tragedy lead us to turn tears of sadness into acts of help and hope.