"The City of Refuge" by Charles Foster, 1897
"The City of Refuge" by Charles Foster, 1897

When the time comes to reflect, will you hide or walk into the light?

Matot-Masei
Numbers 30:2-36:13
Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4

Most of us remember playing hide-and-seek as children. I often thought of the game as one that revealed the difference between those of us who relished being “it” (trying to find their friends after the proper period of counting) and those for whom being “it” came with severe anxiety.

As far as the hiders went, growing up was marked by being able to find ever more sophisticated places to take refuge. It was only when the cry of “Ollie Ollie in free!” could be heard that we knew it was safe to come out. And it all began again from there.

This Shabbat we read the Torah portions Matot-Masei, which taken together bring the book of Numbers to a close. Among the many matters discussed — such as the rules for entering a foreign city and the taking-on and annulling of vows — are the cities of refuge to be established once the Israelites settle in Canaan.

Their purpose was to give those who had unintentionally killed someone a place to go where they could be safe from family members of the victim looking for blood vengeance. There’s an interplay in this instruction of sadness and seriousness and hope.

On one hand, the Torah and rabbinic commentaries are clear that the taking of a life, even without intent, is a tragedy. It is never something to be taken lightly, whatever the circumstances. After the words of Martin Buber, God’s presence is eclipsed at times like these when human life is lost.

There were parameters put in place to make sure these cities of refuge were not taken advantage of. Judges were given the task of making sure the murder had truly been unintentional before the individual in question was granted asylum. And they were not ostentatious places. They were set up to provide adequate comfort and resources so that the people within their walls could live and be sustained, but these were not places for festivity … or for forgetting.

And yet, the Torah is also telling us, through the establishment of these cities, how important it is to pay attention to extenuating circumstances — to not to seek one-size-fits-all solutions. Life is too nuanced, too valuable.

We’ve all felt the temptation to lash out when we’ve been hurt, or when something has been taken from us. When we (or someone we love) experiences injury of any kind, our first instinct may be to injure the person who has caused that pain, so that they will end up hurting as much as we do. But to paraphrase contemporary writer Barbara Kingsolver, the only problem with letting your heart go bad like that is that there’s always a chance you might want to use it later.

This Shabbat of Rosh Hodesh Av (the start of the new Hebrew month of Av) finds us two months away from Rosh Hashanah. In that spirit, what would happen if each of us took the Arei Miklat (the cities of refuge) from the historical and communal to the contemporary and personal?

As we begin looking at ourselves, our families, our communities, our strivings and our shortcomings of the past year, where will we take refuge? Will we hide in embarrassment or self-loathing … in feelings that immobilize us? Or will we look for refuge instead in honest cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of our souls) … so that we might free ourselves to grow?

Will we exile those who have hurt us to faraway places where we don’t have to see them or think about them? Or will we find the courage to face them, to make a fresh approach, and open new paths of understanding and forgiveness?

Reaching through feelings of sadness and anger, groping toward healing and wholeness in our own imperfect, human way is what creating new beginnings is all about.

Maybe that’s also what “Ollie Ollie in free!” (and its many variations) was trying to convey to us, too. Hide as we may, the time always comes for us to emerge into the light of day. To be visible to ourselves and each other once more. And to let it all begin again from there.

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Tikvah Walnut Creek. She can be reached at rabbigutterman@tikvah.org.