One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
You shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge to which a manslayer who has killed a person unintentionally may flee.
Rabbi and Cantor Eva Robbins
Co-rabbi, N’vay Shalom, Los Angeles
In light of the vicious attack on George Floyd and many others who are innocent or misunderstood, this statement shines ever so brightly. What is more impactful is the verse that follows the one above, “… so the killer will not die until he stands before the assembly for judgment.” The Torah presents a painful reality, that many can be judged and even convicted without the proper procedures. They may even be the target of vengeance by those connected to the deceased, preventing the administration of true justice.
How many such occurrences have taken place, particularly for those in minority communities at the hands of law enforcement officers, those hired to protect and ensure that justice prevails. The irony of it all. The word “unintentional” is critical; “bishgagah” means to make a mistake. The Torah acknowledges this condition, creating a safe place until the individual has his or her moment to speak and explain the circumstances of his or her action. We are not to judge and make assumptions based on preconceived notions or circumstances. The city of refuge made it possible to take time out, “breathe,” and move forward with objectivity and impartiality, symbolized by blindfolded Lady Justice.
There are appropriate consequences to one’s actions. Torah enumerates many of them, but prejudging and taking the law into one’s own hands isn’t allowed. Perhaps if we had such cities and fewer prisons, justice and healing could prevail.
Rabbi Ari Segal
Head of School, Shalhevet High School
There is something deeply compelling about the idea of the Arei Miklat. Cities of refuge exist beyond what we think of as natural law. The concepts that reign outside their walls — the whims of accidental disasters, man-made justice — cease to be relevant after a person enters the refuge.
Of course, none of us would, God forbid, want to be in a position to need an Ir Miklat. But there is something tempting about the concept of this neutral, almost supernatural territory, where even the force of time works differently. That’s especially true in times like these, when we are all, frankly, in need of a break from the realities of the world.
The Talmud, Makkos 10a identifies a way in which we can bring ourselves to our own space of spiritual refuge. (Without, thankfully, the dreadful consequences of an Ir Miklat.) The Talmud compares the Torah itself to these almost-unearthly cities, as detailed at the end of Sefer Bamidbar (35:11).
Just as the roads to the Arei Miklat are straight and direct (although not necessarily easy), the path to our own city of refuge is clear. We must pursue Torah study and prayer as not only intellectual or emotional exercises, but an active spiritual link to our Creator. When we follow this path and engage in this way, we connect ourselves to a space beyond natural law, beyond time, beyond earthly concerns. We are connecting to the spiritual source of Creation, and can there find the comfort we seek.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
Spiritual leader, Temple Ner Simcha, Westlake Village
These powerful words regarding establishment of “cities of refuge” have been distorted as much or more than any other words of Torah for political purposes in the past few years. The text and talmudic discussions (many of which are found in tractate Makkot) are clear: Cities of refuge are exclusively for cases of involuntary manslaughter and no other crime can utilize these asylum cities (Makkot 8b-11b; Deuteronomy 19:2-9; Joshua 20). The current concept of “sanctuary cities” cannot be based upon this text. The biblical cities of refuge are only for a “manslayer who has killed a person unintentionally.”
We need to also be conscious of what our Sages teach about the purpose of these asylum cities. They are not only for protection from the relatives of the victim. They are for expiation … a safe place for a manslayer to consider his actions and spend time atoning for them. This understanding is consistent for more than 2,000 years: from Philo to Maimonides and beyond (“De Specialibus Legibus’ ” 20; Hilchot Rozeach).
Whatever someone’s personal political beliefs, it is clear that the modern self-proclaimed sanctuary areas like Oakland and San Francisco in California, or the zones of protest like CHOP/CHAZ in Seattle cannot with any integrity base their actions upon this Torah concept of cities of refuge. While choosing our political actions, let us not base them incorrectly on such misinterpretations of holy text.
May we all be blessed to safely find atonement, and to base our actions on sacred texts rather than just our feelings.
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Associate dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, AJU
Before there were courts or police, individual family members acted as judge, jury and even executioner, exacting revenge for those who took the life of their relative. But, says the Torah, if such a killing was unintentional, the slayer deserves safety. So, as long as they remained within the boundaries of one of the cities of refuge, six of which were later designated by Moses and Joshua, safety was assured.
Rabbinic literature reinforced that these cities should be accessible, in good maintenance, and with flowing water and markets. Moreover, midrash says that every crossroad on the way required a public signpost with directions to Ir Miklat (sheltering city).
Assuring the sheltering place is a mutual need and responsibility. Life and death are not supposed to be determined by humans — not the accidental violator nor the one whose household experiences the loss. All are called upon to help restore order after the chaos and confusion that results from the inadvertent spread of death. A sheltering place was not simply a place to run to but also a vehicle for healing, cleansing and renewal.
So, too, with today’s coronavirus shelter-in-place order. The responsibility to create places for shelter and refuge is on all — to follow the signposts to preserve life and protect from death those infected and those who could find themselves surrounded by death.
Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon
When we pray, it is our special time to speak to God; when we study the Torah, God is speaking to us and imparting life lessons. One classic example is the directive we are given in Parashat Masei regarding the cities of refuge — “you shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge to which a manslayer who has killed a person unintentionally may flee.”
It would be difficult to think of a more devastating mistake than the unintentional killing of another person. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the irreversible consequences of such an action, God instructed us to create a refuge where those who committed accidental manslaughter would be able to take refuge and find empathy, safety and the possibility of reconnection to the wider community.
The life lesson for all of us is profound. If someone who killed accidentally is not rejected by God, how much more does that apply to everyday mistakes we all make? Before one listens to the voice of guilt, one should internalize a central theme of the city of refuge: nothing puts us beyond the reach of the Divine.
The cities of refuge are not only a reminder to all of us that God understands that we all make mistakes and is forgiving, but perhaps one of the ways we can be God-like is by showing a similar nonjudgmental flexibility to those around us who at times may act like fallible human beings.