Refuge is discussed often in the Torah. When a Jew killed another inadvertently, he was required to flee to a city of refuge, where he was given asylum from the victim’s relatives. These cities were established throughout the land of Israel to ensure that inadvertent killers had sufficient and easy access to refuge.
In fact, even those who committed murder deliberately fled to a city of refuge. The courts then sent for him and brought him to trial under heavy guard to protect him against the vengeance of the relatives. If he were found guilty, he would be punished. Otherwise, he was exonerated and set free.
The city of refuge provided shelter for all killers. Inadvertent killers received permanent asylum and deliberate killers were granted temporary asylum until their guilt was established or refuted.
The purpose wasn’t merely to protect killers from vigilantism. After all, the very Torah that extends asylum to the killer permits the victim’s relatives to avenge the victim’s blood. If the Torah were merely concerned with protecting the killer, it would not have granted the avengers license to avenge. There is something deeper amiss here. On the one hand, the Torah forfeits his life to the avengers, on the other hand, the Torah extends him protection. What is going on?
The answer is that the Torah is not interested in punishment. The Torah cares deeply, however, about justice and atonement. A Jew that takes a life has blood on his hands and loses his right to life. Granting the avengers license to take his life is a matter of justice. But it isn’t only about justice, it is also about atonement. When the avengers take the killer’s life, his sin is wiped clean. It is an act of atonement.
In fact, it is entirely not about vengeance. If anything, taking the killer’s life is an act of pure devotion to the killer. The natural reaction of the victim’s relatives is to refuse to help the killer. He killed their relative, why should they help him? Especially, when the act of atonement entails them going against their nature and taking a life. Killing is not in the nature of a Jew. Golda Meir once said that we can forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but we can never forgive them for turning our children into killers. What Jew wants to kill? Yet, the relatives do this for the man who killed their loved one. Is there a better way to demonstrate devotion to the soul of the killer?
Nevertheless, the Torah, in its infinite wisdom and compassion, provides the relatives and the victim an alternative. Rather than this one losing his life and that one taking a life, the Torah created an alternative vehicle for atonement. The cities of refuge, which were filled with members of the tribe of Levi, pious people and paragons of virtue. By relocating to this city, the killer proclaimed his willingness to reform. To rehabilitate. To turn over a new leaf in this city surrounded by righteousness and piety.
So long as he remains in that city, he is certain to rehabilitate. Even inadvertent killers require rehabilitation. It is true that they did not murder deliberately, but neither did they revere life sufficiently to ensure its preservation. Had they been more careful, a tragedy could have been averted. They need to learn to value and to cherish life. And they will learn this in the city of refuge.
This explains why Jewish law calls for the killer’s teacher, if he has a permanent teacher, to join him in the city of refuge. His time there is not just to extend asylum and protect his life. It is to provide him with the atonement denied to him by the sparing of his life. By sending his rabbi with him, we ensure his atonement as well as his salvation.
The Month of Refuge
Just as the cities provided refuge, so does the last month of the Jewish calendar year, the month of Elul. To understand this, we need to realize that the natural headspace and disposition of a Jew is to be righteous. To be sinful is an aberration. It is unnatural for the Jewish soul. This means that even a regular sinner, even a person who has always sinned, is not a natural sinner. No Jewish soul is comfortable in sin.
Every Jew has a safe space to which they can retreat. This safe space is your true self’s natural space. The space where ego doesn’t trigger offense, impatience doesn’t trigger annoyance, greed doesn’t trigger dishonesty, lust doesn’t trigger licentiousness or promiscuity, fear doesn’t trigger insecurity, and personal trauma doesn’t trigger active or passive aggression.
It is a healthy and normal space—a retreat forever preserved in the deeper recesses of our heart and soul. It is the person that we all want to be. No one is proud of their transgressions. We all regret them even if we don’t how to articulate our regret. We all want to change our hurtful and negative ways even if we don’t know how. We want to, we just don’t know how to.
This month is when G-d helps us access and enter our refuge. G-d doesn’t lift us up out of our headspace and land us in our safe space just as G-d never lifted the killers and dropped in the city of refuge. G-d provided the city and instructed the nation to pave the roads, populate the cities, nurture its economy, and build its infrastructure. But no one took the killer to the city. That he had to do himself. He had to get up and flee, often under hot pursuit.
We need to do the same. Come the month of Elul, we are each expected to do some heavy lifting. The first step is to take inventory of our spiritual disposition and decide just how satisfied or dissatisfied we are with our condition. We then need to determine precisely which behaviors or tendencies we are ashamed of. After this, we enter our city of refuge—our safe space.
We enter it by visualizing precisely what life might be like under optimal conditions. Visualize someone saying or doing something that triggers you and script an alternative response that you can be proud of. Live inside this headspace, this safe space, for a month and practice it whenever the opportunity arises.
When something occurs that usually triggers you, remind yourself that this month is different. This month, these events are not triggers, they are practice drills. They give you a chance to put your aspirations to action. They are your opportunity to build new neuropaths and train yourself to respond differently. The more you repeat these new reactions, the more they become your new habit.
You can enter this safe space at any time of the year. There is no time that is inconducive to repentance. But during the month of Elul G-d is at your side helping you along. You have additional support from above in your new resolutions and endeavors. We all know how hard it is to turn over a new leaf. We all know how much harder it is to retain the new leaf in the long run.
It always requires Divine assistance and a great deal of determination. During the month of Elul, it still requires determination, but the Divine assistance comes more easily. G-d is standing right there with you as you enter your safe space and encourages you as you move along.
There are cities of refuge in space, and there are cities of refuge in time. The beauty of the refuge in time is that we can be rehabilitated even from our deliberate sins. Unlike the cities of refuge in Israel that could not provide permanent protection for deliberate killers, our safe space enables us to repent even from our deliberate sins. May our repentance be pure, our efforts successful, and may we be granted a year of life.