mattot massei – a modern take on the cities of refuge

first written 2009.

ImageStaring out of the window in the media-briefing centre in Sderot, looking at a huge and ugly concrete wall right outside, I read the word ‘miklat’ and for a moment I was surprised. I know the word from bible rather than ulpan, where the arei miklat, the cities of refuge, are created. As our bus had entered the town, we were given a briefing – in the event of a rocket coming over from Gaza, if you are still on the bus, get down into the passageway and hope. If not, then run like crazy for one of the bomb shelters that are dotted every few yards – the miklat.

Miklat is a word that is repeated ten times in the 34 verses we read today. A miklat is a place of safety, a place of escape, a sheltering place.  Reading today’s portion my mind immediately went back to the experience in Israel – where one didn’t feel very safe nor sheltered. Seeing the word then on the shelters all over the Sderot area, and seeing the words now in this sidra, the two experiences come together. The words for refuge, the designation of the cities of refuge “arei miklat”, of “miklato” (the refuge of the innocent manslayer) — are tied up in Modern Israeli experience as bomb shelter or air raid shelter, the hoped for asylums from the constant and unpredictable attacks on the people there.

In fact the tradition of signing the areas of refuge, something I found so remarkable and so distressing in the unexceptional and stolid nature of those constructions everywhere in Sderot, has long and honourable roots.  The Talmud records that: “Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’acov said: The words miklat, miklat [refuge, refuge] were inscribed at crossroads, so that the [inadvertent] manslayer might see them and turn in the right direction.” (BT Makkot 10b)

The Cities of Refuge were towns in the Kingdom of Israel and Kingdom of Judah at which the perpetrators of manslaughter – done without malice or forethought – could claim the right of asylum; These manslayers were not enemies of those they had killed, nor had they intended to hurt them, but they had killed them by accident, and outside of these cities, blood vengeance against such perpetrators was allowed by law. The Torah names just six cities as being a city of refuge: Golan, Ramot-Gilad, and Bosor, on the east of the Jordan River, and Kedesh (on the Lebanese border), Shechem, and Hebron on the western side.

Just listing the names of the arei-miklat is a poignant experience. Almost all of these places are in disputed political geography today, and far from being places of calm or sanctuary.  While on sabbatical I spent some time in Israel – in particular a day in the south Hebron hills and in the city of Hebron itself. The tension and aggression in the area was palpable, and rather than have ‘miklat miklat’ signposted at crossroads, there were checkpoints and watchtowers, and in the city closed streets and terrible graffiti. It was the very opposite of a place of refuge.

What was the purpose of providing the Arei Miklat, the cities of refuge?

The author of Sefer Ha-Chinuch suggests three reasons for a manslayer to flee to a city of refuge (positive commandment 410):

The first is “So that he regret his deed, suffering the pain of exile, which is almost like the pain of death, for a person becomes separated from his loved ones and the land of his birth, and must live out his days among strangers.”

Secondly “there is an element of improving the world … for it saves him from the blood avenger killing him when he did not willfully do wrong, for his act was unwitting.”

And finally  “There is yet another benefit:  so that the relatives of the person who was killed not have to constantly see the killer in the place where the unfortunate act was committed, for all the ways of the Torah are for peace and tranquility.”

Pain and suffering reflect the emotional state of the manslayer, protecting him from the blood avenger shows concern for his safety and physical preservation, and distancing him from the relatives of the person killed brings about an improvement in society, keeping the family of the person killed from having to see the person who shed his blood, at least for a certain period of time.

Rabbi Judah Zoldan asks “Aside from these explanations, there are several other issues that should be considered: what other understanding and view of the value of life will the manslayer have when he leaves the city of refuge, upon the death of the high priest?  What does the manslayer do with his life for the period that he resides in the city of refuge?  Does he learn and internalize a different view of the value of life and of a person’s responsibilities for his actions?  What rehabilitative process does the manslayer experience there, and under whose guidance?

        From the time I spent in Sderot and in Hebron, these questions have been haunting me. I saw both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians living, not in cities of refuge, but in cities of pain, trapped geographically and spiritually in what can only be described as a living hell.  There are, it seems, few innocent manslayers here, but mostly people who are to some extent complicit in the events. Be they suicide bombers prepared to blow themselves up alongside people from the ‘other’ population, or settlers appropriating land for their ideology of triumphant nationalism; be they eighteen year old kids in the IDF not questioning their orders, or the rabbis who write up the terms of engagement against the other, everyone it seems is adding to the heat of events.  There is little reflection, slight repentance, no improving of the world. Rehabilitation and the development of a different view of the value of life is noted mainly for its absence.  And yet –

While I was in the Hebron hills I met a man called Ezra Nawi. He is a Jewish Israeli man, an Iraqi born in Basra, whose trade in life is plumber. He is also a human rights activist, and with persistent non-violent activity he helps the local population to stay on their lands. The day I met him, he was constructing some kind of solar powered electrical generator with what appeared to be some string, some metal, and other Heath Robinson materials, for a family of Arabs whose settlement was being continually disrupted, even though they had papers dating back to the Ottoman times to prove the land was theirs.  There is a video on You Tube of him protesting the treatment meted out to his friends, and what is the most sad for me is him calling out to the border police “I was also a soldier but I did not demolish houses….The only thing that will be left here is hatred, only hatred will be left here”, as an Arab woman screams out “May God never forgive you. May God destroy you”

        The original cities of refuge were designed to keep society safe, to palliate the effect of the blood relative having the power – and obligation – to avenge the death of an individual.  The manslayer who had not killed intentionally, who did not have an animus towards the one who died, was able to find a place of peace within the Levitical cities, and to stay there in safety reflecting upon the results of their actions.  It was designed to bring about peace, rather than allow a feud to build up between families. It was designed to remove the hatred from the situation, taking the hated one away from those who could not bear to see him, taking the thoughtless one to a place of thoughtfulness.

        There are many many peace activists in Israel, Jewish and Arab people who take refuge not in places but in their own integrity, who try to bring about a better world by seeing this one as it really is and imposing the values of the truly religious individual upon it – noticing and valuing the other, noticing when our side gets it wrong, witnessing the conflict peacefully. Alongside Ezra Nawi there is Rabbis for Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Breaking the Silence – an organization of young Israeli soldiers who are confronting Israeli society with what is being done in their name; Ta’ayush, (2004)  (Arabic for “life in common”), a grassroots movement of Arabs and Jews working to break down the walls of racism and segregation by constructing a true Arab-Jewish partnership. They say of themselves “A future of equality, justice and peace begins today, between us, through concrete, daily actions of solidarity to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and to achieve full civil equality for all Israeli citizens.”  There is MachsomWatch, in existence since 2001,  an organisation of peace activist Israeli women against the Israeli Occupation of the territories and the systematic repression of the Palestinian nation. They call for Palestinian freedom of movement within their own territory and for an end to the Occupation that destroys Palestinian society and inflicts grievous harm on Israeli society. 

The cities of refuge may be gone, transformed into cities of dispute. Nowadays the only places of miklat are bomb shelters reminding everyone of how much the hatred has grown, how rampant and chaotic the response to it. But there are at least anshei miklat – people who provide a kind of refuge when all around are causing pain and sorrow. Through them I hope that the lands of Israel and of Palestine will soon find true refuge from the terror that stalks them day and night, and that the refuge all of us seek will be found as a result of their actions.  They need our support and our active help. Please do find out more about them and offer them some miklat that we can provide – to know that they are not forgotten and not uncared for. To know that the image of God is not hiding in this world, but is out and about in the work of all of us who choose to do it.

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