Parashat Masei

Cities Or Sanctuaries

Cities of Refuge are symbols of God's unconditional love and constant presence among people.

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The most significant aspect of a City of Refuge was that it was, in every meaning of the word, a sanctuary. A sanctuary is, of course, a place of protection. But a sanctuary is also a temple to God--designed and built according to God's instructions and cared for by priests.

[Earlier], we discussed God's instructions to Moshe to build a symbol of His presence among the Israelites: "And build for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them" (Exodus 25:8). We learned that the sanctuary was not meant as a house for God. God had not said, "And build for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell in it," but, "And build Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them." Here, at the very end of the Book of Numbers, we are again reminded what a sanctuary is.

A sanctuary--be it a temple of marble and gold or a City of Refuge to which criminals flee--is a powerful, concrete symbol of God's constant presence among people. God dwells with people, whoever they are, whatever they have done. His covenant with them is unshakable: His love is unconditional. No matter who you are and what you have done, God does not abandon you. God recognizes that people make mistakes. He always gives us another chance. And this is what the hapless offender--ridden with guilt and remorse-was to learn in the City of Refuge. (From Ancient Secrets: Using the Stories of the Bible to Improve our Everyday Lives, p. 198-199.)

One could even imagine that these accidental criminals would form a kind of community. They might have come to the city of refuge in a panic, feeling utterly lost, and found there others in the same situation, people who could truly understand their feelings. These were Levite cities; perhaps the fact that these cities had a special "religious" designation helped these "refugees" understand that they were not rejected by God for their actions.

Notice that the accidental criminal didn't get off "scot-free;" he had to stay in the city of refuge until the current High Priest died, which could have been many years. Actions do have consequences, and reconciliation is not automatic; it proceeds on its own schedule, which can't be predicted.

What makes the lesson of the cities of refuge so powerful is that accidental manslaughter is an extreme case--if someone who killed is not rejected by God, but can in fact still find empathy, safety, and the possibility of reconnection to the wider community, how much more does that apply to the everyday mistakes we all make! Nothing puts us beyond the reach of the Divine; there is no rift that can't be at least partially healed, at least in theory.

How do we nurture such healing? By finding people who have "been there," or at least who can listen without judgment; by letting go of old wounds (remember that the "blood-avenger" was no longer excused for his anger after a certain amount of time); by finding a place where we can be accepted with all of our imperfections, and by remembering that God understands that everybody makes mistakes, sometimes even terrible ones. The lesson of the ir miklat is that the process of healing takes time, space, community, and spirituality; with these elements, we can build Sanctuaries wherever we are.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.