September 22, 2019

Torah portion: City of light

It was a few years back, and my wife and I were just settling into our new home after an exhausting move from New York to Los Angeles. At about 2 a.m., we awoke to what sounded like cannon balls crashing outside our window. We headed for the door, and, under the yellow halo of streetlamps, found a dozen neighbors staring in shock at four wrecked cars. 

In the middle of the street, a young man, maybe 19 or 20, wandered about like a lost child at an amusement park. Dazed, he mumbled like an incantation: “My life is over. … It wasn’t even my car. … My life’s over. …”

Someone asked, “How did you manage to hit three parked cars?”

“Texting,” he replied. 

By 3 a.m., the police had arrived. Their explanation was different: DUI. 

Handcuffed and seated in the back of the squad car, the young man’s face was ashen. He looked like he regretted the day he was born. I fell asleep wondering how long would it take before this young man would smile again? Would he see the sunrise from a county jail cell?

It made me think of this week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, which begins with Moshe pleading to enter the Promised Land despite a terrible mistake he had made earlier. “I beseeched God. … Please, let me go over, that I may see the good land that is beyond the Jordan” (Deuteronomy 3:23-25).

According to the midrash, Moshe’s despair was as boundless as the sea: “Moshe donned sackcloth and put ashes on his head. He said to God, ‘Let me at least go as a beast of the field.’ ‘No.’ ‘Let me go as bird.’ ‘No.’ ‘What of my bones?’ ‘No.’ ” (Yalkut Shimoni).

Moshe was punished for unleashing his temper upon the children of Israel, for striking the rock in anger, and what was done could not be undone. Despite his regret, no matter his remorse, Moshe would never enter the Promised Land. As it says in the Torah, “God was wrathful … and would not listen” (Deuteronomy 3:26).

But what does Moshe do next? How does he deal with his mistake and the greatest disappointment of his life? After Moshe concludes his initial speech at the beginning of the parsha and just before the repetition of the Ten Commandments, the Torah records something that seems rather out of place. 

“It was then that Moshe designated three cities of refuge East of the Jordan, from where the sun rises” (Deuteronomy 4:41). Cities of refuge — arei miklat — were designated for those who murdered without intent. The example the Torah gives is when the ax head flies off the handle, striking a passerby. Today, it could be the driver who hits a pedestrian while texting or because he or she was flush from drink. 

The question is asked: Why does Moshe himself designate these three cities, since the commandment to set aside cities of refuge was not required until Canaan had been conquered? The responsibility seems like it should fall on the shoulders of Joshua, not Moshe! Furthermore, why do we need to be reminded that the East Bank of the Jordan is where the sun rises? The sun always rises in the east. 

The Talmud, Tractate Makkot (10a) gives the following answer: Said R. Simlai: “What is the meaning of the verse, ‘Then Moses separated three cities beyond the Jordan, toward the sun’s rising?’ Said the Holy One Blessed be He to Moshe: ‘You have made the sun rise for murderers.’ ” 

We have to appreciate the symbolism of the Talmud. Here we have Moshe facing west — toward Jerusalem, Hebron, Beersheba … and the sunset, Moshe is approaching the end of his life, and while he may not enter the homeland of the Jewish people, he decides to designate cities of refuge in the east, in the place where the sun also rises, for those who must flee their homeland, for those who seek a new day.  

In other words, Moshe takes his despair and he channels it. “I beseeched God”— Here I am at the doorstep of the Promised Land and I am denied entry for the things that I have done. But I am not going to collapse from regret; rather, I am going to do something for those who suffer from the worst kind of regret imaginable: Those who have taken a life. I am going to give them another chance. 

Moshe deigns to make the sun rise even for the murderer.

This past week we marked the ninth of Av, when Jews around the globe recalled all the mistakes and tragedies that have befallen us. And there have been many. Perhaps the message of Moshe Rabbenu is no matter how terrible the night, there is always a city of refuge, a city of hope, off in the east. 

After Tisha b’Av, there comes a morning.  Even after a terrible car crash, there is a new sun.

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is the spiritual leader of The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parsha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.