Cities of Refuge

Whenever I visit Israel, especially a kibbutz or a k’far, I always notice the buildings that say miklat (מקלט). These are the bomb shelters, the areas where residents will have 20-30 seconds to get to between the sounding of an alarm and the rockets striking. As a sheltered American, I think of what it must be like to live every day with a sense of uncertainty and danger, not knowing when the siren will strike.

Parshat VaEtchanan contains a reminder of the six Levitical cities, or towns in which the Levites will dwell. These cities are referred to as arei miklat, or cities of refuge. Anyone who has committed manslaughter through negligence needs to flee to one of these cities and must stay there until the Kohen Gadol, or High Priest, has passed away, whereupon s/he can return to his/her place of origin. However, if the goel hadam, or blood avenger, a relative of the deceased, encounters the one who flees outside of the city of refuge and kills him, there is no guilt on his account.

The cities of refuge, instead of becoming a temporary respite, turn into a prison, where someone cannot escape on pain of death. The person might need to remain there for years until the death of the Kohen Gadol. Instead of being brought to a trial by a judge, the person is required to hide out. Of course one could leave the city but then s/he would always be looking over his/her shoulder for the blood avenger.

The end of the Book of Joshua contains additional laws regarding these cities of refuge.[1] When someone arrived in the city, he needs to describe to the city elders the events that occurred-an example given in the Talmud being “as I was sharpening my axe head, it fell off and killed a person.” S/he stands trial and if found innocent, the Levites must find a place for the person to dwell. If the blood avenger comes, they cannot turn him over because “the fugitive killed their neighbor unintentionally without malice.”[2]

The cities of refuge bring up a number of “why” questions. Why establish a city of refuge in the first place rather than convicting someone of manslaughter? Why would these cities be the same as the dwelling places for the Levites, the servants of G-d? Why can’t the person leave the city until the death of the Kohen Gadol? Why establish this category of “blood avenger,” in Hebrew the same word for “redeemer” (גואל) as if you’re redeeming the person’s soul or legacy by avenging his life?

At first blush one might think that cities of refuge are places of protection; that the Levites, as spiritual authorities, were ensuring that the person was protected from the blood avenger. However, Philo of Alexandria has a different take, asserting that the cities were place of atonement. He writes that an innocent person would never be chosen as the instrument of another’s death, and so therefore he had to commit some sort of sin.[3] That is why he would need to escape to a Levitical city, for the Levites were the stewards of G-d’s will and would provide the spiritual role-modeling that would be necessary for this person’s atonement. It also relates to why a person needed to remain in a city of refuge until the High Priest’s death. Tractate Makkot in the Talmud[4] states that the death of the High Priest formed an atonement, viewing it in the same light as a sacrifice, for this was the most pious person who gave his life in the service of G-d. Maimonides[5] on the other hand stated that the death of the High Priest, the spiritual leader of Israel, was so troubling that the people dropped all of their thoughts of vengeance. It is interesting that the freedom of the refugees is dependent upon the death of the high priest. Turning back to Tractate Makkot in the Talmud,[6] we learn that the mother of the High Priest would provide clothing and food to all those who claimed asylum so that they would not wish for the death of her son.

This brings us to the question as to the need for a “blood avenger.” While this category might be troubling for us, in a sense it is actually an example of imitatio Dei. Every morning we refer to G-d as gaal yisrael, the Redeemer of Israel. G-d redeemed our ancestors from the wrongs done to them by their enslavement to the Egyptians. Similarly, the “blood redeemer” is righting the wrong done to his kinsman through his life being taken by another. It is one of many examples in the Bible about redeeming a kinsman from wrong, others including levirate marriage (יבום) and redemption from slavery or from captivity (פדיון שבויים). If we look at the role of this individual as fostering justice and righting wrongs, it becomes more understandable.

Where does this leave us today? Let us return to the example of the miklatot, the bomb shelters in Israel. It’s no secret that the world we live in is a scary place. Sometimes wrongs happen, whether deliberately as in the acts of radical terrorists in Israel or accidentally as in the case of our Torah portion. In either case we have a commandment to establish miklatot, places of refuge, in order to preserve the well-being of our people. We should never take life for granted and we require these miklatot as safeguards. In a few weeks we will read the command to “build a parapet for your roof,” to put safeguards up for protection, and it is our job to do so. Israel has been a prime example of being proactive and protective, and I hope we will follow suit. The cities of refuge were never the ideal, but rather a reality for those whose negligence resulted in a death. May we learn from this example and put up proper safeguards to preserve and strengthen life.

[1] Joshua 20:4

[2] Joshua 20:5

[3] The Writings of Philo of Alexandria, Special Laws I:159

[4] Babylonian Talmud Makkot 11b

[5] Moses Maimonides, The Guide to the Perplexed, 3:40

[6] Babylonian Talmud Makkot 11a