Rabbi David Walk
Many childhood games have a safety zone. Sometimes it's called gool, base, or home, but it's a place to catch your breath, reorganize and get ready for the fray. It's a comforting idea for kids to feel they have a place of refuge where they are safe from attack. This idea seems to have come from religion. Places of worship often provided a legal sanctuary from arrest or attack. The most memorable scene in The Hunchback of Notre Dame is when the sympathetic hunchback cries for sanctuary in the cathedral. This idea is ancient, and was part of English common law until 1697. This role has been replace in the political arena by asylum granted by countries and their embassies for dissidents from other countries (Snowden?). About a third of a million people claim this right annually. Many people believe that this concept is related to a famous issue discussed in this week's Torah reading, the law of the refuge cities. I'd like to compare and contrast these concepts.
In our parsha it says: You shall designate cities for yourselves; they shall be cities of refuge for you, and a murderer who killed a person unintentionally shall flee there. These cities shall serve you as a refuge from an avenger, so that the murderer shall not die until he stands in judgment before the congregation (Numbers 35:11-12). At this juncture it seems that the purpose of the refuge city is, indeed, to protect someone from the clutches of the law or the repercussions of their actions. However, when you look at other sources you see that the reality is much different. The first time refuge cities are mentioned, it says: But if a man plots deliberately against his friend to slay him with cunning, even from My altar you shall take him to die (Exodus 21:14). And in the days of King Solomon, another story makes clear that we don't view even the holy Temple as protection from the long arm of the law. After Joab has committed treason by backing Adoniahu for king against Solomon, he wants immunity from execution. Here's what happens: And the tidings came to Joab, for Joab had turned after Adoniahu,…and Joab fled into the tabernacle of the Lord and took hold of the horns of the altar. And it was told king Solomon, that Joab fled into the tabernacle of the Lord and behold he is by the altar, and Solomon sent Benaihu, saying, "Go, slay him." And Benaihu came to the tabernacle of the Lord, and said to him, "Thus said the king, 'Come forth.'" And he said, "No, for I will die here." And Benaihu brought back word to the king. And the king said to him, "Do as he said, and slay him there (I Kings 2:28-31)."
So, if we can assume that we are not interested in sanctuary in the commonly understood usage, what is the nature of these refuge cities? I think that the emphasis of these towns is not in the refuge they provide, but in the exile they impose on the perpetrator. This exile from home, tribe and family is the repercussion if not punishment for this inadvertent homicide. And, of course, if the killing were premeditated murder, nothing saves the criminal from justice. Now we must try to establish what is the concept or, perhaps, the lesson behind this precept. This mitzvah is commanded in our Torah three times, and each appearance is, I believe, instructing us about another aspect of this idea. The first time is: But one who did not stalk, but God brought it about into his hand, I will make a place for you to flee (Exodus 21:13). The second text is in our parsha and is the most extensive, and it concludes: The congregation shall protect the murderer from the hand of the blood avenger, and the congregation shall return him to the city of refuge to which he had fled, and he shall remain there until the Kohen Gadol, who anointed him with the sacred oil, dies...And you shall not corrupt the land in which you live, for the blood corrupts the land, and the blood which is shed in the land cannot be atoned for except through the blood of the one who shed it. And you shall not defile the land where you reside, in which I dwell, for I am the Lord Who dwells among the children of Israel (Numbers 35:25 & 33-34). Finally, we have the explicit command to establish these cities of refuge, and concludes: Lest the avenger of the blood pursue the killer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and he strikes him down, whereas he was not deserving of death, for he had not hated him in times past (Deuteronomy 19:6). Three commands must hint at three concepts.
The shedding of blood, even unintentionally is an offense to all interested parties. And who are these interested parties? Clearly the family of the deceased is one. Even though we restrain them, we recognize a certain legitimacy to their claim for revenge. Now, please, reread the verses above from this week's parsha. The second interested party is clearly the land itself. The refuge city is outside the tribal allocation of the land and therefore, somehow, not part of the land, and the exile takes the man slaughterer outside Israel. But who is the third party? I think it's God. God's claim against the perpetrator is assuaged by the death of the Cohen Gadol, high priest. How does this work?
God has a claim on the land and the nation to fulfill the Divine will. When, God forbid, one brazenly offends we prosecute with the full force of the law, perhaps including execution. However, what about negligence? Negligence can't compare to premeditated murder, but the Torah demands a society of serious citizens carefully considering their acts before performing them. That's the essential difference between man and beast. God demands that level of attention to detail in the lives of Torah true Jews. Lack of concentration and accident ultimately isn't an excuse. So, God, as well, demands a recompense. Who safeguards God's laws and moral truths? The High Priest. When society degenerates to behavior not carefully considered, we turn to the Cohen Gadol with our claim. We anoint the next High Priest with the high expectation that in his reign the proper discipline in society will be manifest throughout the land.
It's a tall order, but the Jews preparing to enter the land are enjoined to expect it. And so should we, because there is no safety zone from our own indifference.
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