Parashat Masei

Refugee Awareness

Lessons from the biblical cities of refuge.

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This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.

The obligation to protect human life stands at the center of our tradition. Stemming from a verse in Leviticus which reads, "neither shall you stand by the blood of your neighbor," the classical rabbis developed the overarching principle of pikuach nefesh, which asserts the supreme responsibility of protecting individuals who are in potentially life-threatening situations. The obligation to protect life is considered of such great import that it trumps virtually all other legal considerations.  

This week's parashah includes a distinctive Torah instruction which reflects our tradition's broader preoccupation with the protection of life and, in particular, the Torah's special concern for those people in society who are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The Israelites are instructed upon entering the land of Canaan to designate arei miklat, cities of refuge, which would function as asylums for the perpetrators of unintentional manslaughter from violent retribution by their victims' relatives.

The Torah teaches: "When you cross the Jordan into the Land of Canaan, 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. The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the manslayer may not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly."

Over 30 Million Refugees

As we read the Torah's instructions we are reminded of the huge number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) currently scattered across the globe. The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) announced on June 19, 2007, that the number of refugees in the world has increased for the first time since 2002. In large part as a result of the war in Iraq, the number of refugees rose by 14% last year to nearly ten million people. According to the U.N., in Iraq alone four million have been displaced since 2003.

In 2006, the largest population of refugees recognized by the UNHCR continued to be Afghans (2.1 million), followed by Iraqis (1.5 million), Sudanese (686,000), Somalis (460,000), and refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi (about 400,000 each). When you add the estimated 25 million IDPs, the number of displaced persons mushrooms to well over 30 million people globally.

Special Roads, Special Treatment

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Rabbi Jacob E. Fine

Jacob Elisha Fine is rabbi and assistant director of Hillel at the University of Washington in Seattle.