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TMOT Podcast, Two Minutes of Torah

Two Minutes of Torah: Matot-Masei – A city of refuge

At Rabbinical School I had the opportunity to take a wide variety of classes as I prepared to become a Rabbi. And as one might expect there was a lot of reading which needed to be done. Of all the articles, books and journals which I read during those five years, one piece has stuck with me in a way like no other. In a class entitled: ‘Jewish Texts of Economic Justice’, we read an article by the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. As we discussed this article in class, it challenged my views and forced me to think about not just Judaism, but the world in which we live. The article was entitled: Cities of Refuge.

The first time that we encounter this concept of the Cities of Refuge is in this week’s Torah portion. As the Israelites continue to prepare for life in the Promised Land, some specific instructions are given for the distribution of property. In the midst of the Levites allocation it states: ‘The towns that you assign to the Levites shall comprise the six cities of refuge, which you are to set aside for a manslayer to flee to’ (Numbers 35:6). No further details are given until God says to Moses: ‘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’ (Numbers 35:11).

Within the Israelite legal system there was a recognition that people may accidentally kill someone else, and that the perpetrator would need to flee from the victim’s family, who may come after him or her, seeking revenge. These cities therefore provided a safe haven for people who were semi-guilty and in need of protection. One can imagine some hardship associated with uprooting from one’s home and living in a city full of manslayers, but at the same time the place provided some security for the killer.

Emmanuel Levinas took this concept of the cities of refuge and considered the half-innocent and half-guilty character of the people living in these places. They were guilty because objectively they had killed another person, but there was also some innocence as the crime had been committed accidentally without intention. He then suggested that we who live in the western world are: ‘free and civilized, but without social equality and a rigorous social justice’. Meaning that while we prosper there are other people, both inside and outside of our society, who are suffering so that we may be able to enjoy the life which we have grown accustomed to.

Perhaps we are therefore all living in cities of refuge, with as Levinas says: ‘the ambiguity of a crime which is not a crime, punished by a punishment which is not a punishment’.

While in ancient times the cities of refuge were havens for a specific crime, perhaps today they are a statement on our world, and a reminder that we all have the potential to harm or even kill others completely unintentionally. For Levinas, today we simply harm those people as a result of the way that our society functions. But the challenge for us is how to break free from these cities. How can we live our lives so that we are not just partially innocent, but completely innocent? What can we do to reclaim the world from the cities of refuge?

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