Early in August, I had the joy of spending a week at Elat Chayyim, the retreat center of the Jewish Renewal movement. Among many beautiful words of Torah I learned that week, one stood out. It was in connection with the arei miklat, the cities of refuge, enumerated in Parashat Va'etchanan (Deut. 4:41-3), and again this week (Deut. 19:2-10). But first, to set the scene:
Elat Chayyim, like Jewish Renewal communities around the country, has a special custom for offering aliyot (the honor of coming forward to recite a blessing over the Torah). The service leader offers a word of introduction to the section of the Torah about to be read, then asks all those who particularly need to hear the wisdom of the Torah around the theme of this section to come forward.
A group of people assembles, recites the Torah blessings together, and after the reading, the service leader offers a Mi Shebeirach, a blessing for all those gathered close around the Torah. In this practice, the group of people invites the wisdom of Torah into their hearts in a focused way, and receives a blessing in connection with that bit of Torah teaching, essentially praying the Torah portion with the heart as well as studying it with the mind.
On this occasion, Phyllis Berman, a deeply gifted leader of the Jewish Renewal movement, called people forward for the reading of the law of the cities of refuge. She explained the basics of the law: When one person kills another unintentionally and without premeditation, the killer is urged to move to one of the cities of refuge, where he (or she) is safe from the act of violence presumed to follow, as a family member of the victim is expected to follow the manslaughterer to avenge the killing.
The cities of refuge, then, are established by Torah to stop an otherwise unstoppable cycle of violence, "in order that innocent blood not be spilled in the midst of your land that the Lord your God has given you as an inheritance…" (Deut. 19:10). The cities are a safe haven, where the penitent killer can live in peace and safety.
Berman asked how many of us need a place of refuge. How many of us need a place where we can take our mistakes and our guilt and our shame, where we can take ourselves for care when we cannot live with ourselves? She asked us to consider if we need more places back home that are safe and supportive and holy — places where we can heal when parts of ourselves have been killed off, at our own hand or at the hand of another.
Most of all, she invited us to come forward if we needed help in building an inner refuge, a place within where we could always go in times of turmoil, conflict, and pain.
This week, once again, we read of the cities of refuge. This week the law has a slightly different nuance for us, coming as it does on Elul, the month devoted to the penitential prayers that prepare us for the Yamim Nora`im, the Days of Awe. With Berman's teaching in mind, the law of the cities of refuge resonates this week on at least three levels, in the context of the work of tshuvah (turning-repentance) to which we turn in earnest this month. Suddenly, this apparently simple piece of social legislation echoes with the three levels of the tshuvah process: bein adam laMakom — between oneself and the Everpresent One, bein adam lahaveiro — between oneself and the other, and bein adam le'atsmo — within the self.
This Elul, we might well ask ourselves:
*Bein adam laMakom: In our relationship with God and God's creations, what more we could be doing to make the communities of which we are a part places of deeper safety and support for those in need, for those in pain, for those with no place to go.
*Bein adam lahaveiro: Between oneself and the other, what would it take to make ourselves into places of refuge to which loved ones could turn, to whom colleagues and neighbors and friends could turn for a word of kindness, of comfort, for a haven of honesty and care?
*Bein adam le'atsmo: In our relationship with ourselves, what do we need to do in the coming year to further develop the sanctuary within, which is, above all, the only way to be deeply safe from the dangers of life? What sort of support and companionship and learning do we need in order to know deeply enough the presence of God within us and around us? What more do we need to develop within ourselves the steadiness, the faith, the love and compassion which alone can keep us safe as we move through life?
This Elul, may we deeply hear the invitation to come to a city of refuge, to build a haven inside ourselves, where we honor and nurture the spark of the divine that lives within us. Within this refuge, may all that we have killed in the past year, whatever has been killed in us and whatever is in need of safety be granted healing and renewal. Amen.