On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Matot-Mas’ei: Cities of Refuge

The double parashah of Matot-Mas’ei introduces the concept of cities of refuge. Today, as American lawmakers are using the bible as justification for the mistreatment of people who are seeking refuge, there is a lot to learn from Parashiyot Matot-Mas’ei. In this episode of On the Other Hand, Rabbi Jacobs discusses what the Torah can teach us about welcome refugees.

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Welcome back to On The Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion of the week in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about the double portion of Matot Masei, and he wonders what does it really mean to offer refuge.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: This week, we focus our attention on the last two Torah portions of the Book of Numbers, the fourth book in the Torah. The Torah portions are entitled Matot Masei. And you would expect, of course, some kind of summation, a concluding coda to the book that has brought us through personal narratives of the first family of our tradition: Moses, Miriam, and Aaron, as well as some of the rebellions and all those different dramas. We're going to focus on one very often overlooked dimension of the two parshiot, and that is the discussion of the cities of refuge. What do I mean cities of refuge? In the thirty-fifth chapter of the Book of Numbers in Parashat Masei, we have the commandment to establish six cities of refuge. What did that mean? Was that for generic refugees? No. It was very specific. The Torah tells us these were cities that individuals who had committed unintentional murders could escape to and there find a kind of temporary refuge until they could be deemed safe and then they could be returned to their community and brought to trial.

It was clear that there was in antiquity something called a blood avenger. If you, for example, harm somebody in my family, I would have the obligation to go cause harm to you. This was a remarkable institution. And the idea that there are six cities where refugees can flee to and find safety echoes through the millennium and not just in the Jewish tradition.

So if we think about these cities of refuge, that it is maybe the last real act of mitzvah that Moses does in the Five Books of Moses. I mean we certainly have the Book of Deuteronomy, which reiterates many of the laws previously given. And thinking about this idea of cities of refuge...it sounds very, very contemporary. In fact, if I didn't tell you that it was from the Book of Numbers you might think: hey Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs; are you making this up? Did you create this because of all the issues and all the current events exploding across the United States at this moment? The answer is, I did not make this up. It's right there in the Torah text. I want to actually explicate a little bit of the Torah's teaching and then I want to reflect not only on what's happening today where we do have cities that are called sanctuary cities. Is that the same thing? Is it related? Is it biblically based? And I also want to challenge today the notion that the Bible in some ways offers proof texts or defends what we intend to do, because we have many examples where that is deeply problematic.

So, in Chapter 35 of Numbers, here we have the text that tells us the following: "The towns that you thus assign shall be six cities of refuge in all. Three cities shall be designated beyond the Jordan" (where, actually the country of Jordan is today). "And the other three shall be designated in the land of Canaan. They shall serve as cities of refuge. These six cities shall serve the Israelites"--and listen to this--"and the resident aliens among them for refuge, so that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there.".

So that's the category. And you say how does someone kill someone unintentionally? Well we have, of course, the category today in modern law called manslaughter. You know, let's say you're driving your car and either you momentarily take your eye off the road ahead of you and tragically, but inadvertently, hit a pedestrian. That would be an unintentional murder that we wouldn't call murder. We'd call that manslaughter. The question is about whether, as the Torah says, this applies not just to Israelites--the people who are quote full citizens-- but even that stranger who lives among you has the same right to flee to a city of refuge.

If we can think a little bit more about this, it turns out that the person would stay maybe for months, maybe actually for several years. It actually was able to preserve a little bit of a lawful society, where it wasn't so immediate that there would be blood vengeance. Turns out we're not the only culture in antiquity to have a notion of a city of refuge. It turns out that ancient Greece, Sumer, Phoenicia, and other cultures also had a notion of asylum. But in those civilizations, a murderer could flee to a local shrine or a religious site and gain protection oftentimes while holding onto the altar inside that sanctuary.

Even with an intentional murder, you could find refuge in a religious sanctuary. That is the critical difference between the other ancient cultures and the Torah. The Torah says this is only applicable to the one who unintentionally commits manslaughter. Now amazingly, even Ezra, one of the great commentators, dwells for a moment on the uniqueness of including the stranger; that this is in fact, the refugee, the one, the immigrant. This person has full rights in the Torah. It turns out also that Kimchi, the Radock, says that these refuge cities are also called absorption cities. These are places that gather those who flee for their safety.

Now, let's think for a moment about today. I don't know exactly when you're listening to this, but early this summer there has been on the borders of the United States, particularly along the Mexican U.S. border, a whole exploding issue of people who are coming to the United States fleeing persecution and seeking asylum, seeking to be, in a sense welcomed into not a city of refuge, but a country of refuge. And we know that many of the young children have been torn from their parents and it has caused outrage--religious outrage.

Now, one of the things that caused the most outrage was that and again-- wherever you sit on the political spectrum I hope you just take a deep breath and listen to this teaching--the Attorney General of the United States, in a very unusual argument, stood before the country and said this not only was the policy of the U.S. government; he said actually it adhered to the teaching of the Bible. And then he quoted from what we call the Greek Bible or the New Testament. What clearly raised the hackles of a lot of us was to justify such a draconian policy based on the Bible. Now someone could have stood at the microphone right next to Attorney General Sessions and said: “But you know Attorney General, it says in the Book of Numbers in Chapter 35 that we are to create refugee places of refuge called cities of refuge.” Ir miklat, arei miklat. And is that an obvious sort of justification or proof text for a policy of being more inclusive for refugees, those seeking asylum? I don't think you can quote the Bible in this context and say it automatically points to one particular public policy today. But you can point to the fact that the Torah is trying to think about not only the vulnerable, but also about those who would need to find safety, a place of refuge. And could you broaden that category to include refugees and asylum seekers who come to the shores of the US? I believe you could.

I want to just also raise the issue because it's been a very live issue in Israel. There are a group of asylum seekers who've come to find refuge in the state of Israel. Now we know Israel was created as a country of refuge for those who were enduring anti-Semitism during the Holocaust. We did not have a state of Israel and one of the great motivations was to have a place where Jews could go if they were persecuted. No matter what was happening, Israel would always take them in.

That's still the case. But in the case of the asylum seekers in Israel it wasn't actually that they're Jewish. They're from Eritrea and Sudan mostly and Eritrea has one of the worst records on human rights. Sudan certainly has been accused in the International Criminal Court of conducting genocide against the Darfuri people within Sudan, and Darfur is a part of Sudan. Israel has about 40,000 of these asylum seekers. There's a big debate in Israel. The government says they're infiltrators. Others say they're fleeing genocide in the case of Darfur. And the other cases are fleeing a clearly, a very oppressive regime. Should these people be deported? Well that was one of the possibilities and there now seems to be, still circulating, the possibility that some of these asylum seekers would be resettled in Western countries, especially Canada, which has a very enlightened policy. Now I tell you this because again, would it be possible in the debate in contemporary Israel to cite the cities of refuge in trying to discuss how to offer safety to those who are fleeing for their lives? Whether they are a Ga'er Toshav, a resident alien, or full citizens. Torah seems to make a category that they're both included.

Well I can tell you that the debate in Israel, which I participated in and continue to participate in, has not been primarily a biblical debate, although many of us have used and when we stood in south Tel Aviv the end of February protesting with the asylum seekers, we held up placards which had biblical quotes, particularly the one from the Book of Exodus as is said "you should know the heart of the stranger for you are strangers in the land of Egypt." The Bible has been a source of inspiration to stand up for justice, for the rights of others. We're told 36 times in the Bible to not just consider the rights of a stranger, but to defend those rights and to preserve their safety amidst the great vulnerability of being a refugee, someone without the status of a home.

So I raise all these and at the same time I really want us to think about how much we ground our contemporary moral views and public policies on things other than just a kind of debate back and forth. What are the grounds, the foundations, of our values? We in the Jewish community, we stand very much on our biblical, on our post- biblical, and on our core Jewish teachings. And to bring them into a public policy debate in the U.S.? Well, you know, we can defer to different authorities about how to interpret these, but I am really struck by the cities of refuge and the timeliness.

It turns out many cities in the United States have called themselves sanctuary cities, cities where people who do not have, they're undocumented, that they will not be turned in and they will not be turned away. Many of these are our largest cities where there's been a public outcry to make a more morally grounded public policy, not a vindictive and harsh one. And I must say, because some of you are sitting in your cars or wherever you are washing your dishes, wherever you are listening to the podcast thinking, but isn't it a requirement to guard our borders wherever they might be in the United States and Israel and other places.

Of course. Of course we have to keep our country safe. Of course we have to be careful who comes in. Of course we have to worry about terrorism. But it turns out that there are ways very much to consider each case and to vet the possibility that someone would have malevolent intent. But I think to be a community that is based on morality, not just based on the law of the marketplace means that we have to think these issues through. So I just give you the cities as a refuge as a teaching from the end of the Book of Numbers, one that may not be familiar, one that may not automatically convince any of you that we should do something different on our borders, whether those borders be on the Mexico-US border or in the south of Israel.

But I do think, for those who are listening to podcasts who are grounded in the Jewish tradition as I am, that we must actually learn from these sources and be ready to expand them and to apply them and to use them as lenses through which we would see contemporary issues and to bring that about.

I had the privilege a couple of weeks ago leading a Bible study outside the Department of Justice in an effort to really engage with the Attorney General and frankly the wider Jewish community and even the wider faith community on how we can be more morally spiritually grounded and how we can raise our voices for the most vulnerable in our midst.

Arei miklat, cities of refuge, six of them in ancient Israel. Potentially many more in our day. What does it mean to be a community of faith? It means that we take our religious traditions seriously. We don't stretch them so that they apply to anything and everything that we might want them to. But we're ready, on a moment's notice, to cite them, to learn from them, to be stretched and instructed by them. That's what I hope we can do as we conclude the book of Numbers.

Whenever we conclude a book we say hazak, hazak v'nit hazek: May be strengthened, not just personally but communally by our studies and may we be strengthened as we go on and continue our study in the book of Deuteronomy. More importantly, these texts should help shape who we are and they should shape what our society is; how we live, how we stand up for the principles our tradition teaches us. So draw strength from this Book of Numbers. Draw strength from the cities of refuge. Draw strength for the journey ahead.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand, Ten minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l'hitraot.