The Road to Refuge Must Be Broad

DEUTERONOMY 3:23–7:11

By Melissa Weintraub

Published August 08, 2003, issue of August 08, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Like most children at 9 and 10, I fantasized of special powers, pretending with a single word or wave of a wand that I could teleport objects, sprout wings, see colors crisply in the dark. But one capacity in particular I tried forcefully to materialize — a kind of X-ray vision that could decipher, within others, what I called their “inner scrolls,” ongoing records of coded intentions surrounding acts of cruelty or carelessness, placing each misstep within a broader landscape of memory and mood. In my more grandiose daydreams, I imagined reading these scrolls aloud in a public court of appeal in which all were guilty, but no one condemned, because everyone understood. These imaginings, at least in moments, made my heart swell with a kind of soft, pliant love, even toward those who’d failed me, and I savored that feeling for as long as it lasted.

In this week’s portion, Va’etchanan, Moses appoints three cities to act as refuges for the manslayer, the inadvertent killer. These cities, as commanded in Numbers 35:9-34, are to serve as pretrial asylums for all killers and posttrial homes-in-exile for killers deemed innocent of malicious intent. The Tanakh attests to the importance of these sanctuaries in its numerous references to them, eventually expanding their number to include all 48 Levitical settlements, with the aim that they should be regionally distributed and readily accessible so that fugitives are never too far-flung to find safety within their borders.

The Talmud systematizes this principle of easy access in painstaking detail, mandating that the roads leading to cities of refuge be broad, level and well marked so as not to impede the fleeing offender in any way. The rabbis also secure other protections for the manslayer, specifying that the cities be neither too large — in which case an avenger might manage to enter undetected — nor too small, in which case food shortages might arise, causing the refugee to endanger himself by leaving his shelter in search of provisions.

Why such far-reaching concern for the manslayer? One answer is that these ordinances offered a bulwark against vindictive justice — a kind of rudimentary system of due process ensuring presumed innocence, impartial adjudication and protection against vengeance in a society lacking a police force.

The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas offers a more radical answer: The Torah takes so many precautions to safeguard the manslayer, because we are all, in a sense, manslayers. We are all slayers unawares, hovering between guilt and innocence, walking semiconsciously past the need and pain around us daily. Just as the manslayer is described as b’lo reut — literally, unseeing — so we, too, close our eyes to suffering, complicit and even culpable, through our obliviousness and our neglect.

Levinas invokes this idea in order to hold all of us accountable rather than let any of us off the hook. If we all stand accused, without possibility of absolution, then we are all guilty of not doing enough to ease each other’s pain. With this conception of radical, unalterable guilt, Levinas pushes us to do more, no matter what we are already doing, because others still suffer in our wake. But there is another implication of his thought. If we are all guilty, then those socially cast as villains — the criminal, the national enemy, those demonized, despised and disposed of — are not so very different than the rest of us, and deserve mercy as much or as little as we do. We all share the same unseeing yet aspiring humanity, the same half-realized state. We all drift between dreaming and waking, destruction and love, in need of refuge as well as repair.

Last summer, while serving as a prison chaplain in a maximum-security penitentiary in Indiana, I found myself pressed up against the “inner scrolls” of men whose life histories, like Levinas’s teaching, and unlike the acts for which they were tried, defied obvious demarcation between guilt and innocence. I encountered men who had committed violent crimes in the stupor of drugs, or during a psychotic episode, or after absorbing inconceivable rape, abuse and poverty over an extended period of time. I did not meet the cold-blooded sniper of the news nor the hardened, professional crook of the movies, but rather confused and broken people born into crushing circumstances, stamped on by life and well positioned for wrong turns.

The command to build cities of refuge would not have us exonerate these men, nor excuse their behavior. But this mitzvah does charge us to avoid the temptation of unforgiving vengeance, and bring mercy and understanding even to those who have brought harm.

Melissa Weintraub is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.