Seeking Refuge

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18 Jul 2010

By the Jews, justice happens quickly. For example, on the rare occasion when a capital punishment is invoked, the gap between decision and implementation is less than 36 hours, nor do lashes and general payment/repayment obligation extend for a long period of time. Apparently, death row, protracted justice and seething jails teeming with unrepentant convicts are simply not the hallmarks of the Halachic punitive system.

And yet, for the third [out of four] time in Torah, our parsha exposes us to an out-of-the-box justice notion that challenges this concept – that of the ir miklat, the city of refuge – a place of exile set aside for the unintentional killer who must dwell within it until the reigning Kohen Gadol’s death [at which point he may then re-enter society], an undefined period of time that can last years or may indeed be forever, for him. Failure to remain within leaves our protagonist at the mercy of the goel hadam, the blood avenger whom halacha gives license to kill [or hire a hit man] the unintentional killer.

So many details need explication here: The Kohen Gadol connection, exile’s function, the goel hadam’s role, the definition of unintentional and a general sense of is this the wild west need deep analysis.

Our inquiry focuses on an obvious inequity that emerges. First the Torah [Bamidbar, 35:9-12] commands a total of six refuge cities:

And the cities which you shall give shall be six Arei Miklat. Three of these cities you shall give on this side of the Jordan, and three cities you shall give in the land of Canaan to be cities of refuge. These six cities shall be a refuge for Bnei Yisra’el .. so that anyone who kills any person unintentionally may flee there.

Now in our parsha, Moshe, in his last active mitzvah, consecrates three of the six cities – those that lie on the east side of the Jordan river.

Then Moshe set apart three cities on the eastern side of the Jordan, That the murderer who killed his neighbor unintentionally, and did not hate him previously, might flee there; .. Bezer in the desert .. for the Reuvenites; and Ramot in Gil’ad for the Gadites; and Golan in Bashan for the Menashites.”

Note the disproportion here. To the west of the Jordan River reside 9.5 tribes while the eastern bank is home to 2.5 tribes and yet an equal amount of refuge cities are established? The Talmud raise the issue and responds: (1)

Abaye said: ‘Murderers are more common in Gil’ad [general name for eastern region of the Jordan] .

Abayei’s answer is super troubling – for refuge cities do not service the intentional murderer; For that bad man, the Torah dramatically formulates: from my altar you shall take him to die; To the murderer, God says you can run, but there is no [halachic] place to hide. Abayei’s answer then, appears to completely neglect our key population, the unintentional murderer.

Our meforshim present several creative answers to handle the issue:

1. Chizkuni – Initially [after any killing] all perpetrators flee to the refuge city – even the intentional murderer, to ensure his safety from the goel hadam. Only after the Beit Din paskens (decides) the matter, are the intentional murderers taken out. Since there were an inordinate amount of murderers fleeing to the ir miklat, more room was necessary to house everyone [even the unintentional killers].

2. Ramban, Ritva – Many intentional murders feign or claim the mantle of shogeig [unintentional]; in the absence of clear evidence, Beis Din accepts their claims. Therefore, they seek residence in ir miklat, necessitating more space needs for the truly unintentional.

3. Tosafot [Makkos 9] – God, the master Choreographer, arranges that the murderers who killed [without witnesses] be “processed” at the hands of the unintentional killers [who killed without witnesses]. Thus, Hashem sets it up that the unintentional murderers would come to Gilad and kill unintentionally [this time with witnesses]. Everyone receives their just desserts. (2) Thus the presence of real murderers “attracts” the unintentional killers.

4. Meiri – Since murderers abound, the blood avenger may hire them to kill the unintentional killer. More cities are needed to allow the unintentional murderer the opportunity to save himself efficiently, lest he not make it to the city.

These solutions see the presence of intentional murderers and unintentional murderer as being distinct phenomena. Their connection is either via Divine Providence or some coincidental interdependence.

Rather than a technical chappy answer, Maharal(3) cuts to the heart of the matter and sees a deep connection between the two. In short, it’s all about the climate. If one lives in an environment where life is not accorded the highest value, then the spillover effect is unavoidable. Simply put intentional murders lead to unintentional killers, because low regard for life feeds on itself. If life is disposable, then why should I double check my ax-handle to make sure its not loose – what price a life anyway? [just ask the Ford Company about the 1973 Pinto].

Consider that in just forty years, a normative Western society that has shortened life on both ends [by redefining death and permitting abortion] now plays fast and loose in almost all end of life issues. Once life’s sanctity has been breached, then it all comes tumbling down [we’ll leave Peter Singer and his chevra who seek to extinguish any unique sanctity of human life for a different time]

To remind himself of life’s value, the unintentional murderer sits in the refuge city; also the abode of the Levi’im, and he remains there until the Kohen Gadol dies. The lives of the Levi and the Kohen Gadol were daily reminders of the inestimable worth of a life of service. When the Kohen Gadol passed on and this reflection is fully concretized, the unintentional killer is now ready to reengage life with a new perspective.

In a classic piece that wonders why the [1st] Temple was destroyed, the Talmud takes it all the way to the top going beyond the prophets to God himself who responds that it happened because Bnei Yisrael failed to make the blessing on Torah study. Both the question and answer are simply astonishing.

Read Melachim, Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, Hoshea etc. and it is eminently clear that the Jews were engaged in deviant behavior to the max [the big 3 – idolatry, adultery and murder] . What’s the question?! More remarkable than the question is the answer that seems focuses on a droplet at the pain of missing the wave.

Perhaps the point of the Talmud is not what did they do wrong, but how did they get there, i.e. how was such a climate of non-observance created. How did a passionate punctilious nation become so disengaged? The deep Talmudic answer reminds us that it begins by neglecting the bracha which hallows Torah as a window into the Divine mind. By not making a bracha, Torah becomes just another view – another perspective on morality, a different look at business ethics, yet another voice in the cacophony of philosophical truths.

In a world fixated on global climate issues – one that sees the interdependency of all who inhabit this earth, our job as Jews is also climate control, a holy imperative to create a refuge in space [home, shul, etc.] and time [daily and Shabbat] where we remind, observe and strengthen within ourselves the core values we hold so dear.

On this Shabbat Nachamu, may we be comforted in a most beautiful way

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander


1. Cf. Ramban who gives 2 different answers than the gemara. He states that it would take away from Moshe’s honor if Yehoshua would set aside more than he did and since Moshe did not enter Eretz Yisrael, he had to set aside a minimum of 3 in every hayarden. In yet anoter approach he states that the area of ever hayarden was equivalent in size to Eretz Yisrael proper thus it was necessary to give both populations an equidistant space between cities to allow the unintentional murderer easy access to the cities.

2. A similar notion presented by Maharal’s brother is that those who killed unintentionally [without witnesses] will generally not be brought to justice, but Gilad which possessed so many murderers allowed the unintentional murderers to be processed.

3. Bamidbar, 35:12 אבל נראה לי כי כל שוגג היה לו להיות נזהר שלא יהרוג, ולכך חייב גלות, דאם לא כן, למה יגלה, דמה עשה, אלא שהיה לו להיות נזהר שלא יהיה חבירו נהרג על ידו. ובגלעד נפישי רוצחים אותם שהם מזידים, וממילא לא תמצא אף אחד מהם – אף הטובים שבהם – שהיה נזהר שלא יהרוג חבירו בשוגג. ולפיכך, כמו שתמצא הרבה מזידין שהורגים במזיד, מכל שכן שהיו יותר הרבה שוגגים, שאין נזהרים שלא יבוא על ידם שפיכות דם. ולפיכך היה צריך להרבה ערי מקלט:ועוד, דודאי מה שהיו שם הרבה רוצחים, היינו מפני שהמקום גורם, שהיה מגדלת רוצחים לרצוח אנשים, לכך היה מוכן לגדל אנשים הורגי שוגג. כי יש בני אדם מוכנים לדבר מה יותר, והיה המקום מגדל אנשים שעל ידם יבא שפיכת דם – יש במזיד ויש בשוגג, ופשוט הוא

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.