Mas'ei 5779: Cities of Refuge
This week, the attorney general announced a change in the interpretation in US asylum law. As you may know, under federal law, someone seeking asylum must prove a credible fear of persecution in his or her home country based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a specific social group. Since 1985, immigration courts, which are part of the Department of Justice, have interpreted “specific social group” to include specific families, if membership in that family is the cause of the persecution.
In the case that prompted this ruling, a Mexican man claimed that his family was threatened by drug cartels because his father refused to let them operate out of his store. The attorney general reversed a lower court’s ruling that his family counted as an identifiable social group, while leaving open future cases for people claiming asylum from countries where family-based clans really are distinct social groups and persecuted minorities.
This ruling is but the latest event in the ongoing argument about the nature of asylum laws and the limitations of their application. As Jews, we should be particularly sensitive to this issue, as the United States was a place of refuge for so many of our families. And as recently as the 1980s and 90s, 400,000 people from the former Soviet Union, many of them Jews, received asylum in the US .
I bring this up because our Torah reading this morning, from parashat Mas’ei, includes an early form of asylum or sanctuary for people in particular circumstances. As part of the preparations for entering the land, God commands the people to designate six cities of refuge.
These cities represent the Torah’s attempt to contain an existing social institution, the blood avenger. In a situation where someone kills another person accidentally, in ancient times, the victim’s family had a right, and was even expected, to avenge their relative’s blood by killing the person whose actions led to the accidental death. Such extra-judicial killings took a bad situation and made it worse, by perpetuating the violence and bereaving another family.
So, the Torah mandates these six cities of refuge as a place where the person who committed manslaughter could flee. There, he or she would be protected from the vengeance of the family of the victim, and live in peace.
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live in a city of refuge, a place where some significant portion of the population had killed someone, albeit by accident. How would it impact the life of the community? Did the people there discuss their experiences, or would they not want to bring it up? How would it feel to live in a community where lots of people had to uproot their lives in order to protect themselves from a vengeful relative?
The Talmud (Makkot 10a-b) clarifies that these cities were to be normal places, as much as possible. They were to be medium-sized cities with water sources and some kind of economic driver. The community was to ensure that these cities were viable places where someone could live for a very long time in safety. If a student of Torah had to flee, his rabbi would go with him so he could continue his studies, and if a rabbi had to flee, his students would join him. Yet, behind this veneer of normality, it would nevertheless be the case that many people in this community had experienced something traumatic—the accidental taking of another life—that had changed his or her life forever. All of these people walking around with guilt and fear—surely this would affect the character of the place.
The Talmud also clarifies that these cities must be made easily accessible. The roads to these cities were to be well marked so someone who needed to flee could easily find them. Two sages would accompany someone on the way to the cities (Makkot 2:5) to protect them along the way. Furthermore, the accompaniment of these high-status people might prevent embarrassment, as it could look like that the accidental killer was engaging in Torah study rather than fleeing for his life.
Finally, the refuge was not necessarily permanent. Anyone who had committed manslaughter was to stand trial to determine what had happened (Numbers 35:12), rather than be killed extra-judicially by a vengeful relative. Only once a court determined that the person had committed an intentional act of murder would the victim’s relative have the honor, if you can call it that, of executing the court’s punishment. But, if the court found that the death had occurred accidentally, the killer would be protected from the blood avenger only within the city of refuge. Were he to leave it, he would be fair game.
All of this is further evidence that this law is the Torah’s attempt to rein in the existing social expectation that the blood avenger has the right and the obligation to kill the person who had killed his relative.
The picture that emerges from all of these details is that the Torah’s vision of society includes easily accessible protection for people who have to flee for their lives. They are entitled to safety and to something resembling a normal life. Nor does the Torah demand that these individuals be perfect—after all, they had all killed someone, albeit by accident.
Yet nonetheless, their lives were at risk, so the Torah develops a social institution to protect them. They are provided with a safe, normal place to live, so that they can come to terms with what had happened and get a fresh start in a new community.
The problem of people whose lives are at risk seeking safety obviously remains with us today, as millions of people around the world have been displaced by war and famine and disaster. In recent years, a growing stream of people, including families and children, have made the dangerous journey toward this country in order to seek safety from oppressive governments or gang violence. The people seeking asylum in this country, such as the Mexican man whose case prompted the recent Justice Department policy change, are often fleeing dangerous situations where corruption and gang violence have destabilized their communities.
Obviously, this remains a hotly contested political issue, and I’m not here to take a stand on the right way forward. But, the situations of the people seeking asylum today remind me of the situation of the manslaughterer in the Torah, the situation of the people who, through no fault of their own, had to flee for their life. As the Torah saw it, such people deserved a fair hearing and safe refuge from those would kill them. As it was then, so may it be in our day.