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Hirsch At Your Table

Cities of Refuge

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary


Rabbi Matityahu Clark

והקריתם לכם ערים ערי מקלט תהיינה לכם ונס שמה רוצח מכה נפש בשגגה. והיו לכם הערים למקלט מגואל ולא ימות הרוצח עד עמדו לפני העדה למשפט. (Nm 35:11-12)
As the Torah discusses the boundaries of the new land and the tribal representatives who will be involved in distributing the land, mention is made of those cities that will be allocated to the Levites as their share of the Promised Land. Included in those cities were the cities of refuge that were to serve those people who may have killed someone inadvertently. These cities would protect such a person from an avenging relative of the deceased until a court's decision as to guilt.

One can see in the phrase והיו לכם הערים למקלט/they will be cities of reception for you, a key to the operation and the purpose of these cities of refuge. The cities were to be fully functioning communities, with ordinary citizens from all strata of society. They must be open and without walls, with food and water available as in any normal community. The murder suspect who flees to one of these cities must be provided with all his needs, including educational and intellectual facilities.

The word ערים is from the root ע-ו-ר "to absorb external impulse". A city is constantly pulsating, providing for its citizens. The word מקלט is from the root ק-ל-ט which means "to absorb" usually on a permanent basis. The murder suspect is absorbed into a new environment. Its phonetic cognate י-ל-ד refers to a baby born into a new world.

But for whom is this refuge city established? There are two aspects to the issue. The first relates to the pre-trial period when after the killing, the suspect is trying to save himself from retribution. For that period, the city is like a temporary holding prison. The second relates to that period after the court has issued its judgment/משפט and categorically declared the act as unintentional/שגגה manslaughter and not murder/רציחה. Eligibility for refuge in that pre-trial period is open to anyone committing this type of crime, even if there is strong evidence and even eye witnesses. The suspect cannot be exposed to any type of punishment until the court decides the case.

The word משפט is from the root ש-פ-ט which means "to create order and harmony". A phonetic cognate is ש-ב-ט/to control. The word שגגה is from the root ש-ג-ג which means "to err" due to carelessness. The word רציחה is from the root ר-צ-ח which means "to murder". A phonetic cognate is ר-ש-ע/act illegally.

Hirsch elaborates on yet another aspect of this scenario; גואל הדם/the redeemer, who is usually described as the 'blood avenger". Ostensibly this person is a close family relative of the deceased who seeks to avenge the killing.

The word גואל is from the root ג-א-ל which means "to release and redeem" usually from some danger.

The גואל is not just an avenger but the one who protects the interests of the deceased. Protecting those interests does include insuring a proper trial for the suspect and punishment if found guilty. In fact, the G'mara states that if there were no close relative to protect the deceased interests, the court must appoint one from the community. But the role of the גואל is to protect the interests of a close relative. (Other instances of the גואל-concept in Tanach include: the Exodus from Egypt; וגאלתי אתכם בזרוע נטויה, and the Ruth/Boaz incident; אם תגאל תגאל.)

The whole matter of the ערי מקלט was a well-reasoned and logical plan from its very inception. This can be seen in the very first word of our verses והקריתם/arrange, for easy access.

The word הקריתם is from the root ק-ר-ה which means "to meet or occur without intent".

These cities had to be located in such a manner that anyone in need of refuge could easily reach a city without elaborate travel plans. The roads to these cities had to be well maintained with signposts clearly showing the way. Even in terms of the relationship from one city to another, the distances had to be equal so as to insure the ability to reach a city from anywhere in land.

Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
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