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Home » Shoftim

Shoftim: City of Refuge

Submitted by on August 11, 2018 – 11:00 pmNo Comment | 2,350 views

The Torah tells us that in the messianic era when the land of Israel will expand beyond the borders enjoyed by our ancestors, it will become necessary to designate three more cities of refuge to provide sanction for inadvertent killers. When a Jew killed another inadvertently, the Torah allows the victim’s relative to slay the killer. So long as the killer remains in the city of refuge, the killer is safe.

In the ancient land of Israel, there were six cities of refuge. Three on the east bank of the Jordan and three in Israel proper. When Israel will expand in the messianic era, three more cities will be necessary.[1]

This entire subject is troubling. Why is the relative allowed to take the life of the killer, does amplifying one killing with another make the problem go away, do two wrongs make a right? Another question, why is the killer allowed to go unpunished so long as he remains in the city of refuge?


To answer these questions lets remember that this is not an ordinary killer. This man killed inadvertently. He was chopping wood and had no idea that the victim was coming down the path. Had he known the victim was coming he would have certainly have stopped chopping. He had no idea.

Yet, he is not entirely without blame. If he were really sensitive to the sanctity of life, he would have taken endless precautions before engaging in a dangerous act that could place a life in danger. Why didn’t he check again and again before proceeding to chop the tree? The fact that he didn’t check demonstrates that he is somewhat cavalier about the sanctity of life.

So, he is sent off to the city of refuge, a city inhabited primarily by members from the tribe of Levi, a righteous people who would be a positive influence on the killer. By exiling himself to the city of refuge, depriving himself of everything familiar, abandoning the comfort and luxury of home, and eschewing a life of leisure, this man will become sensitized to the value of life.[2]

He will never again be cavalier about another’s interest, let alone another’s life. He will never again place himself and his needs ahead of another. This is how the killer atones for his sin.

Yet, suppose he refuses to exile himself. Suppose he remains at home and continues his lifestyle unabated. How then will he atone for his sin? This is not just about the killer. The Torah speaks about atoning for the entire land. For what is a society that allows its members to get away with inadvertent murder? The entire land requires atonement.

The Relative

Enter the relative who facilitates atonement. One would think that the relative is permitted to slay the killer to avenge the life of the victim, but this is not the case. This is not about doubling up the crime. This is about atoning for a terrible sin.

The killer has two options. The first is to live a life of exile, which would atone for his sin, the other is to live a life of comfort but be burdened by his sin. On the surface, the second option seems like the better choice. You get to live it up, who cares if you have a sin on your slate? But the truth is that temporal life is transient and will one day come to an end. At that time, we will transition into the life of eternity and there we will be burdened by our sin. The sin will not go away.

The modern notion of ‘live and let live’ can be cruel. We might believe that we are letting the other live when we don’t intrude into their private affairs, but if we really love those others, how can we stand idly by while they squander their eternity? Love of our fellow demands that we get involved.

In this case, the Torah gives us guidance on precisely how to help the killer atone for his sin. He took a life; thus, his life can be taken, and his sin will be atoned.

Who should do the taking? The Torah insists that the task should be given to the relative. The relative is the last person to want to get his hands dirty for the killer’s benefit. By nature, the relative would wish eternal suffering on the man who took his loved one’s life and would never want to help him. Yet, the Torah enjoins him to set his grudges aside and provide his relative’s killer the gift of eternity.

What appeared at first to be a license for cruelty turns out to be a summons to love. It is tough love to be sure. The toughest kind possible. And it is meant to be administered by the very person who is least inclined to get involved. Such are the standards of the Torah.


This will help us answer the most troubling question of all: Why will any of this be necessary when Mashiach comes? Isn’t the era of Mashiach meant to be a time when we will be righteous, and sins will no longer be committed?

We can easily explain away the inadvertent killing. Although we will be exceedingly careful with the life of another after Mashiach comes, we will still need to atone for inadvertent killings we had committed prior to Mashiach’s arrival. But what of the relative? Why should we require refuge from the relative, wouldn’t the relative abhor the very notions of killing and revenge when Mashiach comes?

The answer is that this is not a vengeful killing. It is an act of devotion of such magnitude that it will be most fitting in the messianic era. We cannot even begin to appreciate the depth of this magnitude today. But when Mashiach comes we will easily perceive and contrast eternal good over temporal discomfort. Hence the killer will choose to remain in the city of refuge, and if he does not, the relative will facilitate the atonement.

It goes without saying that this is not a carte blanch license to kill a sinner. This is a unique circumstance in which the Torah gives us a unique set of instructions that apply only in Israel when the Sanhedrin, the high Jewish court, was and will be in place. It has no bearing to any other time, circumstance or place. Yet the lessons we can learn from this law, are immense.

There are times when you might be disinclined to help another. You might even be justified in your belief that this other doesn’t deserve your help. Yet, if you are the right person, at the right time, and in the right place, then this undeserving other has only you to rely on. At such times, G-d summons you to greatness. He calls upon you to overcome your legitimate grudges and to see that your fellow in crisis. It is a challenging summons, but of this, we can be sure: If we look after G-d’s children in their times of need, G-d will look after us in our time of need.[3]

[1] Deuteronomy, 19: 1-13.

[2] This exile only lasts until the passing of the high priest in his day. The killer’s family, business and teachers accompany him to the city of refuge.

[3] This essay is based on Likutei Sichos 26:110-114.

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