Our Parasha introduces us to a peculiar concept: the “accidental murderer.” In the Torah’s terminology, this is someone who accidentally causes the death of another person by neglecting to implement reasonable safeguards and precautions. A person whose actions caused a death despite doing everything they could be expected to do to protect them is not deemed responsible in the least, but failure to take reasonable care does make them responsible; in Biblical times those responsible are sent to a city of refuge for their part in contributing to a person’s death. The Torah terms them a murderer, though the murder is seen as having been accidental/unintentional, thus an “accidental murderer.”
A person who did more than just fail to take precautions, who did not intend to cause death yet actually endangered others’ lives causing death, is considered worse than an “accidental murderer”. The Talmud gives the example of a person throwing a boulder into a crowded space. They are not even afforded the benefit of a city of refuge; according to Talmudic law the court must find other ways to deal with them.
Here we have another example of how Judaism focuses on action far more than intent, on deed rather than thought. A person must be extremely mindful in all they do, thereby preventing accidents. We are expected to think before we speak, think before we do, and “I didn’t mean to” is not considered an adequate excuse.
Amid this year’s pandemic, applying these lessons is rather obvious. We will be held responsible for what we choose or don’t choose to do. Listen to the health experts diligently, stay home, distance from others, wear a mask, wash your hands, and go above and beyond to protect everyone. Including ourselves.