In these terrible, blood-soaked days, anything that reminds us of the premium value placed on life in our tradition is worth revisiting. For the most part, the story of the cities of refuge is not a new one. We’ve learned about them already in Bamidbar and Devarim. But Yehoshua, chapter 20, describes one tender scene which we hadn’t yet heard of- the entrance of the accidental murderer into the city. “And he shall stand at the opening of the gate, and speak to the elders of the city, and they shall gather him to them into the city, and give him a place, and he will sit with them.”
Who are these ‘elders of the city’ in a city of refuge? I used to always imagine these cities as being filled with tragic klutzes, but as we learned in Bamidbar, again repeated here, there was another community that populated them. All of the cities of refuge are designated as cities of the Leviim and Kohanim, holy tribes consecrated to be God’s servants and the people’s teachers. In fact, according to some commentators, not only were all the cities of refuge also cities of Leviim, the opposite was also true- all 48 of the cities of the Leviim functioned as cities of refuge. Once upon a time, total dedication to the service of God didn’t demand isolating yourself from the community. Just the opposite! The group with the most elevated religious status is commanded to live together with these most tragic of sinners.
And sinners they are, the Torah leaves no room to sugar-coat that fact with its relentless use of the word ‘killer’ to refer to the one who causes accidental death. They themselves, generally good people who never imagined themselves being responsible for murder, would probably be the first ones to agree to this title. Accidents of such severity don’t generally just happen without some laxity in the appreciation of the infinite value of life also playing a part. And it is especially when there are ample excuses and justifications available- it was an accident, it couldn’t be helped- that there is a need for a spiritual guide to push a person to real introspection and soul-searching. This is the role of the Leviim — to gather the killer in, to make a space for him, and to accompany him on a spiritual, educational journey of a deeper appreciation of the value of life.
This blog offers short reflections on the 929 project’s daily chapter of Tanach. Learn more about the project at 929.org.il