Near the end of Shlach L’kha, this week’s Torah portion, is a curious story of a man caught collecting wood on Shabbat in the wilderness (Numbers 15:32-36). After Moses jails the man and appeals to God for help with sentencing, God orders the man executed for his crime. This narrative has stupefied commentators for two reasons. First, it is not clear which crime the man actually committed that would warrant his execution. While major violations of Shabbat are capital offenses in the Torah, his Shabbat violation seems to be at worst a lower level violation. Second, commentators are confused as to why an appeal to God was necessary to determine the man’s sentence since the Torah has already given the punishment for violating Shabbat. Looking at the sections of the Torah before and after this story can give us ways to answer these two questions.
Just before the story of the Shabbat wood gatherer, Shlach L’kha lays out a set of rules for sacrifices brought when someone accidentally sins. That is, making mistakes is the topic under discussion leading into the story of the wood collector. Following our story, we have the rules of putting tzitzit - fringes - on garments. The tzitzit function as a reminder to follow the Torah’s commandments. That is, the story is followed by the topic of reminders to compel us to follow God’s laws.
The Talmud (Shabbat 69b) teaches a formula for when to celebrate Shabbat if we are lost in the desert and do not know what day of the week it is. If it is so easy to get confused and make mistakes in the desert, perhaps the wood collector merely forgot that it was Shabbat. This would explain why Moses has to appeal to God to mete out a sentence: Moses is not sure if an accidental mistake warrants full punishment. But even though mistakes are only mistakes, sometimes they are genuinely preventable by paying a little more attention. As my high school teacher, Rabbi David Rue, once told me, “There really are no accidents. You could always pay better attention.” I do not think he is fully correct, but he has a point, and I think it is also the point made by our Parashah. Some mistakes are avoidable if we can just be more careful. Driving is one of the best examples where we allow ourselves to be distracted and rarely remind ourselves what is at stake. The Torah then gives us away to be more careful: by wearing fringes on our garments as a constant reminder to pay more attention to our responsibilities as Jews. Which is why Moses does not know the correct punishment for this man. Moses is not sure if the wood-gatherer’s sin is an unavoidable mistake and therefore not subject to punishment, or is it a mistake which, given more attention, should never have happened and therefore punishable? We should ask the same questions. We must commit ourselves to reminders which prevent us from making mistakes, whether those that remind us to not be distracted while operating machinery, those that remind us to watch what we say to people, or those that simply remind us to watch our elbows as we move through a crowd of people. At the same time, we must also remember the other possible ending to the story of the wood gatherer: he might have been innocent. We too should remember to also forgive ourselves for those mistakes which were unavoidable, even had we paid closer attention.