“The congregation shall restore him (a person who has committed manslaughter) to the city of refuge where he has fled and he shall dwell there until the death of the High Priest” Numbers 35: 25

By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, July 8, 2010

What is the role of our religious leadership in developing a healthy society?

This week's portion teaches how someone who accidentally committed manslaughter would flee to a city of refuge, where he would be protected from angry relatives seeking to avenge the death of their loved ones. The killer would stay there till the death of the High Priest. Why was the killer's stay linked to the death of this religious leader?

Rashi suggests that the conduct of society is to some extent a reflection of its spiritual leadership. The High Priest should have offered sufficiently strong religious guidance to ensure that people would be more careful about their actions. His failure to do so led to tragedy.

One of the most gruesome incidents in the Torah is the civil war between the tribes in which 70,000 Jews were killed. The Midrash asks why it happened; its answer is devastating. It says that when the Jewish people first arrived in the Land of Israel, the scholars should have trekked across the country teaching Torah and promoting social justice. Instead, each rabbi sat in the comfort of his home immersed in his own scholarship. The lack of religious leadership led to the breakdown of society.

Ultimately, all of us are responsible for our own actions. But we depend on our rabbis and teachers to spread the love of Torah and faithfulness to its moral, ethical and ritual laws. With appropriate guidance, we can fulfil our role as a kingdom of priests and a holy people, who will serve as a light to the nations.

Last updated: 11:18am, July 8 2010