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.