Cities of Refuge

What does a City of Refuge look like to you? is it a stone walled primitive city, a refugee camp in a third world country, an internal place where you go to be alone, to hide, to find peace or reconciliation, or safety? Or a place to go to chill out when stuff goes awry?

Cities of Refuge are the topic of last week’s Torah portion, Numbers chapters 34-35, or Masei. These are designated places to go for asylum for someone who has inadvertently killed another person. Why is this in the Torah, and why in these chapters? Let’s look at the topic from Judaism’s four levels of Torah study, or PaRDeS, used by Jewish scholars.

The acronym PaRDeS comes from the first letters of four words, Pshat (the literal meaning of the text), Remez (its allusions), Drush (the homilies that can be derived from it), and Sod (its mystical secrets)[i].

imagesIn Hebrew, the word pardes means garden. It is believed the root of the word, paradise, too.

Let’s look at cities of refuge with these four levels:

Pshat, the Torah portion describes how cities are to be located in the new country. To accommodate what has been formerly a mass of wandering peoples, a city must have a designated place for those who have inadvertently committed murder. Why? Historically, justice was done in a literal way, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. This was accepted law and suitable means of justice for nomadic societies. A more compassionate need to protect those who inadvertently kill someone needed to be established when movement stopped and people became tied together in cities: Imagine that you accidentally dropped a load of bricks on someone and then their designated avenger came to kill you, according to law. The confinement of city life would also mean close living quarters within its walls. The pshat understanding is that the innocent could leave their home and travel to another city for safe dwelling, something new for the settling tribes.

Remez suggests this alludes to something more tangible, the institution of community safe havens, transition houses, and identity change programs. It further alludes to our emulating the nonjudgmental protection of the Shekhinah when bad things happen to good people, a reminder of the always available Love of a Higher Power. It alludes to the settling of the people in a homeland and the need to realign values and laws.

Drush is a derivation of the word d’rash, or a homily. The moral lessons of the city of refuge are those that we can apply to our own lives. How often have you sought refuge from mistakes or criticism, taken a timeout from a relationship, a leave of absence from work or school? The lesson is to take regular time aside for daily self-examination, for looking at mistakes as part of being human, and ways to make amends to oneself or to another.

We are encouraged to find a way to come home to ourselves. The Torah is encouraging us to do this by telling us to create cities of refuge in our personal country of dwelling.

Sod is the mystery. How do these cities of refuge help, after all? Are they an escape from reality, can they become an addictive retreat from responsibilities?

These cities of refuge actually have tight boundaries and restrictions on the user: according to text, once claiming refuge, one cannot leave until the Kohen Gadol, or High Priest, has died. No one can buy your way out, buy you as a slave and take you out, and you cannot leave on your own to return to family and home. The refuge city is a prison in many ways, much like the incarcerated singer in Johnny Cash’s song who laments how the train whistle is making him crazy, knowing that there are people traveling on the train while he sits stuck in prison. One can choose to take refuge, but there is a fine line between what is refuge and what is prison. The same could apply to things we do ourselves, things that begin as a welcomed comfort or diversion from troubles, but become confining in themselves if used beyond their healthy limits.

And who is this High Priest? The pshat might imply this is the Kohen Gadol of the Jerusalem Temple, and it may well have been understood that way. The literal translation of kohen gadol is also ‘great priest’. Is it possible that the Great Priest resides inside our own selves, in the form of a controlling ego?

How often does our pride protect us after committing an inadvertent mistake? In fact, the painful feelings might even feel as bad as if we’d committed a murder? The results are often denial, procrastination, avoidance, stagnation, bodily aches and pains. We find ourselves adrift, unable to connect with family, friends and work. A friend says his way of coping when such self-critical feelings arise is to ask himself, ‘but did anyone die?’ How are your resources or means of vanquishing your imprisoning tactics?

Finding ways of releasing ourselves from our own created ego-refuge ‘city’ requires engaging in practices such as prayer, meditation, mindfulness, aimed at a metaphorical death of our ‘great’ ego: we are released from the bondage of overextended pride or denial. This is hard work, well worth the reward of return to liberation.

We can again become priests of wisdom, yielding hardness into humility, making amends, forgiving ourselves, and returning to the lightness of our souls and others in wholeness and Shalom.

The City of Refuge, is it that far from where you live?