This week’s Torah portion, Masey (“Journeys”), calls for the new land of Israel to be divided up into territories by tribe, with a special arrangement for Levites, who will not own land. Forty-eight cities must be set aside for the Levites, and six of these will be designated “cities of refuge”.
Speak to the children of Israel, and you shall say to them: When you cross the Jordan to the land of Canaan, you shall select cities for yourselves. They will become cities of refuge for you, and a killer who strikes down a living soul inadvertently shall flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from a go-eil, so the killer will not die until he has stood before the community for the legal ruling. (Numbers/Bemidbar 35:10-12)
go-eil = a compensator; a redeemer or avenger; a person who is responsible for redressing the situation when a man’s life or land is taken
In the Torah, a go-eil is usually a male relative of a male victim. When an Israelite man becomes a slave, a go-eil redeems him, freeing him by paying his owner. When a man dies without heirs, his nearest male relative serves as a go-eil by making the widow pregnant, so her child will inherit the deceased man’s property and his “name” will continue. When a man is killed, a “go-eil of the blood” (go-eil hadam) is responsible for correcting the situation by killing the killer.
Legally, execution by the “go-eil of the blood” is is not revenge, but rather a way to uphold the dignity and importance of the victim. If no male relative is available to serve as the go-eil of the blood, the judges appoint one.
(What if the victim of enslavement or murder is a woman? The Torah does give a few examples of redemption and retribution for female victims, but there is no go-eil in these cases. The Torah reflects the culture of the time and place where it was written down, so it has different laws for men than for women.)
The Torah provides for six cities of refuge where a killer can flee to be safe from an over-eager go-eil until the community where the killing occurred passes sentence on the case. If the verdict is murder, the go-eil may execute the death penalty, even if he has to enter a city of refuge to do it. But what if the verdict is accidental manslaughter?
If in an instant, without enmity, he knocked someone down, or threw down upon him any implement, without premeditated malice … then the community shall rescue the killer from the hand of the go-eil of the blood, and the community shall return him to his city of refuge where he had fled. And he shall stay in it until the death of the high priest … and after the death of the high priest the killer may return to his land-holding. (Numbers 35:22, 25, 28)
Thus a man who accidentally causes another’s death receives a different sentence. He must leave his own land, and live in a city of refuge, where the go-eil is not allowed to harm him. The killer must not leave his city of refuge until the high priest of Israel dies.
Traditional commentary offers three reasons for this restriction. One is that it preserves the killer’s life by protecting him from being attacked by a vengeful go-eil. The Talmud takes the idea of protection further by teaching that the refugee is given a place to live in the city of refuge, and he does not have to pay taxes to the Levites.
A second reason for the restriction is that since taking a life is such an awful deed, even an inadvertent killer should be punished. So he is exiled from his home, his land, his friends and neighbors. This makes a “city of refuge” more like a city of imprisonment (though it is a very nice prison, where he can have a normal life within the city limits).
A third reason is that the Levites who run the city, and are presumably spiritually elevated by their career of serving God, will help the killer to repent and atone for his guilt over any possible negligence.
I would add that it would be hard to process your guilt and horror over causing someone’s death if you stayed in your old job and kept associating with the same people (who would now see you differently). Moving to a new place would give you breathing room. Although the residents of the city of refuge would all know why you were there, you would still get a chance to built a new identity, instead of pretending you were the same old person.
Then why does the exile in a city of refuge end when the high priest of all Israel dies?
Whatever reasons they give, traditional commentators agree that the high priest was a beloved figure whom everyone looked up to. So his death was a national tragedy, touching everyone’s heart and moving everyone to see life differently.
Rambam (12-century commentator Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides) wrote that when the high priest dies, a go-eil of the blood loses his taste for vengeance, so it becomes safe for his relative’s killer to leave the city of refuge.
Other commentary views the death of the high priest as the final cleansing of the inadvertent killer’s soul, so he becomes sufficiently pure of heart to go back to his former life with the right attitude.
I’ve seen similar psychological transformations in my own congregation, P’nai Or of Portland, when our beloved founding rabbi, Aryeh Hirschfield of blessed memory, passed away unexpectedly. So many of us felt overwhelmed by grief, we could have fallen apart as a community. Instead, the shock and grief opened our hearts, so that many of us rose above petty personal issues and took on new challenges to keep the congregation going. We had even more lay leadership for services, more learning, more support for each other. And we are still going strong.
Although it is a psychological truth that the death of a beloved leader can transform people, we must not postpone our own transformations until our personal high priests die. We need to begin changing our lives at once, just as an unintentional killer was required to flee to a city of refuge at once. And we need to open our hearts so that any tragedy or insight might offer transformation.
Few of us are haunted by the knowledge that we accidentally killed a human being. But many of us are haunted by other things we did in the past. Our society rarely provides us with clearly defined refuges from our internal “go-eil of the blood”: our recurrent guilt, self-accusation, or emotional memories. We need to find our own cities of refuge, even if they are part-time or internal.
May each of us find a place of refuge from the past deeds that haunt us. May each of us be able to use that refuge to look more honestly at our past and accept it with compassion toward ourselves. And then may each of us be blessed with a big shift in perspective, opening up a new phase in our lives.