The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan to the land of Canaan, 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. The cities that you provide shall serve as six cities of refuge for you. You shall provide the three cities in trans-Jordan and the three cities in the land of Canaan; they shall be cities of refuge. These six cities shall be a refuge for the children of Israel and for the proselyte and resident among them, so that anyone who unintentionally kills a person can flee there (Bamidbar 35:9-15).
The Torah provides protection for the accidental killer through the creation of the Ir Miklat, the City of Refuge. These cities were scattered throughout the land and provided refuge to the individual who had inadvertently killed another. From the Torah’s perspective there is a strong level of personal liability even for an accidental act. Therefore, the accidental killer must remain within the city of refuge in order to avoid the vengeance of the victim’s surviving relatives.
But what is the message? What is the accidental killer supposed to learn during his exile? And by extension what we are to learn from the city of refuge?
Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt’l (1910-2012) provides a beautiful insight. The Gemara questions why the accidental killer should be subject to any repercussions. After all, accidents happen. To which the Gemara responds, “D’ibayey L’Iyunei,” he should have been more cognizant and aware. Accidents are often the result of not paying enough attention to the task at hand. Accidents occur because of a lack of focus and dedicated attentiveness. But it is not only tragic accidents which occur because I am not paying attention. Sometimes, I fail to progress and move my life forward because I am too busy multi-tasking. There are times when I fail to place my full strength and abilities into a particular life endeavor and therefore, I don’t move forward. The accidental killer in the extreme example of one who lives life without dedicated focus and attentiveness. But this is something many of us struggle with. We begin something meaningful and beautiful and then lose focus on the intended aspiration. We create lofty goals and then get busy with other things. The accidental killer must remain in the city of refuge in order to regain his life focus. The cities of refuge were also home to the Tribe of Levi. The Leviim were individuals with a singular focus. Their tribal mandate was to serve in the Temple and provide religious instruction and leadership for the nation. They were so dedicated to this mandate that nothing would distract them. Hence, they were not given additional lands in Israel lest they get distracted with farming. They were supported through various tithes lest they get caught up in a career. They embodied the power of singular focus. And so, the accidental killer who is stricken with “life distraction” must remain in the ir miklat, where he can observe the Leviim and learn about “life focus.”
The Apter Rav, known affectionately as the Oheiv Yisroel (Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heshel, Poland, 1748- 1825) advances a different explanation. The Rebbe explains that the original six Cities of Refuge correspond to the six words we recite daily in the Shema, Shema Yisroel Ado-nai Elohey-nu Ado-nai Echad, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” After crossing the Jordan and settling in Israel there were another forty two cities designated as cities of refuge – for a total of forty-eight cities of refuge. The number of words from the beginning of Shema through the end of the first paragraph (V’Ahavta) totals forty-eight. The Oheiv Yisroel explained the deeper meaning behind this connection. The declaration of Shema Yisroel is a “City of Refuge” in which any Jew, no matter what his sin or history, can find shelter and protection.
We live in a fast-paced, ever-changing world. We look to find an anchor, something to hold on to, something to ground us, a stabilizing force in the sometimes turbulent waters of life. A meaningful and passionate relationship with God provides that sought after stability. This is the connection between the cities of refuge and the words of Shema. Just as the city of refuge provided safety and security for one in a dangerous and precarious situation – the words of Shema, the Torah, Mitzvos and all forms of connection with God endow us with a sense of protection, safety and security. And in the same way a city of refuge welcomed the individual despite the fact that he had made a terrible mistake – God’s embrace is open to all – even those who may be spiritually tarnished or compromised.
These are the profound lessons and messages of the ir miklat. The City of Refuge reminds us to be attentive in life. Keep your eye on the ball. If there are things you need to accomplish don’t lose your focus. Because the moment you stop paying attention is the moment your life can go in all kinds of unintended directions. The City of Refuge reminds us that God loves us and is willing to welcome us back home no matter how severe our mistakes and missteps may be. Even if we have wandered or strayed, even if we have lost our direction, God provides us with multiple avenues of connection in an effort to provide us with life-lines and refuge in the most difficult of times.
This coming week we will usher in the Hebrew month of Av. This is a month in which we commemorate two thousand years of tragedy, sadness and persecution. It is during Av that we remember the destruction of our two Temples, the crusades, the pogroms and the Holocaust. It is during this month that we remember the millions lost throughout centuries of hardship and sadness. It is during this month that we focus on our present day challenges as individuals and as a nation. Despite the adversity we must recommit ourselves to actualizing our dreams and goals. We can’t get distracted or lose direction. We must lead attentive lives. Despite the adversity we must remember how truly privileged we are to have the opportunity to create, cultivate and nurture a relationship with God. It is this relationship that is our anchor, it is this relationship that fills us with courage, it is this relationship that provides us the safety and security we so desperately need. The words of our Torah, beautiful Mitzvos, moving prayers, and acts of kindness are the cities of refuge to which we must journey.