A refuge comes in many forms. For many children, husbands and wives, home is a refuge, a shelter from the pressures of the world and the criticisms of others. In many states, national wildlife refuges provide shelter for birds and other animals — plots of land and sea protected from the encroachments of hunters and heavy industry.
In this week's Torah portion, amidst a lengthy discussion of the laws necessary for a Divinely-commanded society in the Land of Israel — there should be judges and officers, a high court, a king, priests and a Levitical class, and a proper procedure to follow in times of war and peace — we also find the concept of refuge.
In biblical times, there were six cities of refuge, three on either side of the Jordan River. These cities, belonging to the Levites, were places where an accidental murderer could flee from the vengeance of his victim's family members. Once there, according to other laws set out earlier in the Book of Numbers, he was only permitted to leave with the death of the High Priest; leaving beforehand would open him to retribution from his victim's relatives.
This week's portion, however, speaks of another three cities to be established "when the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as He swore to your fathers, and gives you all the land that He promised to give your fathers." This refers to the Messianic Era, a time that paradoxically will be characterized by the elimination of evil.
Why the need for a place to protect an accidental murderer, if in the Messianic Era, the very concept of murder will cease to exist?
The Chasidic masters taught that the very nature of sin, any sin, puts it in the same category as murder, as defying the will of the Almighty misappropriates the life force of the soul — and its place in the world — and casts it down the pit of emptiness. And just like the accidental murderer, who found himself in the position of committing a crime he had no intention to commit, the nature of the soul is that it does not desire to sin. As the Talmud declares, it is only a "spirit of folly" that causes mankind to sin.
To repent of his unintentional transgression, the accidental murderer had to embark upon a state of spiritually beneficial exile. Cities of refuge provided not just legal protection, but also the benefit of a constant stream of teachings from the Levites.
In today's era, we can all find refuge in Torah study, exiling ourselves, so to speak, from the worries and tribulations of the world, if only for key moments of the day. It is in these times that we can reflect upon our past actions and resolve to do better in the future.
So what about the Messianic Era?
Even after a person regrets and repents from a past misdeed, he or she is still left with the fact that the possibility of sin gave the transgression room to exist. Only further Torah study — a hallmark of the Redemption — will fully eradicate the spiritual vacuum, ushering in a time when only pure goodness will reign.
This week's portion is always read during Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, a time characterized by analyzing the course of the past year and resolving to make the following year a better one. Especially at this time, we each have the power and opportunity to seek shelter in the Torah so that we have the strength to emerge as better human beings.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: [email protected] chabad.org.