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Home » Life Is Beautiful, Shoftim

Shoftim : A Refuge from Sin

Submitted by on September 5, 2005 – 8:54 pmNo Comment | 2,643 views

Should we Forgive?

He is usually a considerate and loving husband but this time was different. During a heated argument he lost his temper and hurled vicious insults at his wife . He was in the grip of rage but never meant to be hurtful. He quickly stopped himself, apologized and begged for forgiveness. Should she have forgiven? It was only an accident.

Inadvertent but Revealing

She may have been inclined to forgive but she was not  prepared to forget. Loving couples usually resolve their differences amicably so the fact that her husband flew into a rage was, to her, an indication that something was amiss.

Determined to understand the cause of his rage she wisely turned the heated exchange into a learning opportunity.

They reserved some quiet time, withdrew to a peaceful place, and sought refuge in each other’s company. They also hired a professional counselor to help them navigate their turbulent waters.

This quiet space was not a physical location; it was an emotional and cerebral space. Focused only on each other, to the exclusion of all outside distraction, they created a private place of refuge.refuge from sin - innerstream Immersed in this serenity they rediscovered their mutual love, identified their weak points and, together, healed their relationship.

The Inadvertent Killer

A similar scenario plays out in this week’s Torah portion. A man is in the forest chopping wood completely oblivious to the approach of another. Suddenly the ax head flies off the handle and deals the approaching fellow a mortal blow. (1)

This blow was clearly inadvertent. The man was unaware of his victim’s presence and he surely didn’t intend to lose control of his ax. Then again we must ask ourselves why he didn’t ascertain that it was safe before he swung his ax? Why did he permit his wood chopping to endanger others? How could he be so selfishly engrossed?

That he didn’t notice indicates that something is amiss. Perhaps he is exceedingly preoccupied with himself, which in turn, obscures his awareness of others. He needs to step back to examine his character and to free himself from the selfish pursuits that nurtured his narcissism.

A Place of Refuge

This may explain why Torah law stipulates that he flee to one the cities of refuge established in the land of Israel. (2) He must reside in this city and atone for his sin for a period of time and then he is permitted to return home. (3)

These cities were a refuge from sin. Torah mentors were dispatched to teach him Torah and to guide him through his introspection. (4) Most of the residents were from the utterly selfless and dedicated tribe of Levi. (5)  Thus, surrounded by the righteous and counseled by the wise, he would work to reclaim his soul, replace the missing links of his connection and rebuild his relationship with G-d. (6)

A Time of Refuge

Just as there is a space of refuge within the heart and mind, and a city of refuge in the holy land, there is also a month of refuge in the Jewish calendar. It is the month of Elul. (7)

Throughout the year we must balance life’s many commitments. We work to provide for our families, to be loving husbands and wives, loyal friends and well adjusted human beings. At some point we must also work to fulfill our commitments to G-d.

When the burden of commitment grows too heavy something often gives. It may be the spouse who feels unappreciated, the friend who feels neglected or the children who feel we haven’t provide for them. Unfortunately, we also neglect our commitments to G-d.

We ruefully acknowledge that petty concerns have obstructed significant ones. A favorite movie is less significant than a friend’s party. Extra hours at work are less enriching than family time. Saturday golf games are poor substitutes for synagogue attendance.

Indeed, we require a time of refuge to escape the incessant daily demands, to reflect upon past mistakes and to draft new resolutions for the future. The month of Elul is the perfect time. During this month G-d makes himself available to every Jew and encourages us to repent. He counsels us, guides us and proverbially holds our hand. (8)

Just as the city of refuge was a place that reformed the ego, reshaped the character and dispatched the Jew back into society so does the month of Elul. We come out at the end of the month refreshed in spirit and rejuvenated in character. Our time of refuge has enabled us to become the recipients of abundant blessing and to enjoy a happy, good and sweet new year


  1. This law is applied when the ax pried itself loose from the handle and struck the victim or the wood chip flew off and struck the victim. If the killer lost control of the ax and struck the victim instead of the tree, it is not deemed inadvertent. Bab. Talmud Makos 7b.
  2. Duetoronomy 19: 1-13.
  3. Bab. Talmud Makos 2b. See also Tosafos Makos 9b (DH Midi)and Rashi’s commentary to Genesis 9:5. (Shlomo Yitzchaki, Troyes 1040-1105 France)
  4. Numbers 35:6. Maimonidies Hilchos Rotzeiach ch. 8:9. (Maimonides, R. Moshe ben Maimon (Egypt) 1135-1204) Sefer Hachinuch Mitzvah 521. (The anonymous author identifies himself only as “a Levite from Barcelona,” was a student of the Rashba, Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet in the thirteenth century)
  5. Bab. Talmud Makos 10a. Maimonidies Hilchos Rotzeiach ch.5 1. Sefer Hachinuch Mitzvah 410.
  6. See Tiferes Yonoasan on Exodus 12:13. R. Yonasan Eibescutz, 1690-1764 Prague)Sfas Emes Parshas Masei 5654. (R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur 1847-1905)Kedushas Levi Likutim on Numbers 35:11. (R’ Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, 1740-1810) See also Tam Vadaas on Numbers 19:9  (R. Moshe Sterenbach, Jerusalem, Israel)
  7. Shaar Hapsukim Exodus 21:13. See also Likutei Sichos Vol II p. 623. (R. Menachem M Schneerson Rebbe of Lubavitch 1902-1994)
  8. Likutei Torah Re’eh p.32b. (R. Schneeur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chassidus Chabad, 1745 – 1813)

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