Imagine (or remember) getting to a point in your life that requires physically separating from the existing surroundings, lest the possibility of being completely consumed by destruction and pain occur. This decision to leave is connected to heading towards a safe space, a place specifically designated for protection and rehabilitation. The catch (there’s always a catch, right?) is that your stay in this new place is open-ended, without a clear idea of how long this exile will last. Oh, and the rules stipulate that there will be no in/out privileges: once you arrive, you aren’t leaving for a while. There is good news, however: there will be a community waiting to welcome you, a community where there are others who, like you, have needed to separate themselves from a past of destructive experiences.
While this scenario may mirror the experiences of our current residents and alumni, it also describes a section outlined in Shoftim, this week’s parashah. We find Moses, in the midst of delivering his farewell address to Israelites, reminding them about G!D’s instructions for setting up a just society in the Promised Land. In Deuteronomy 19:4-5, the Torah gives instructions about establishing several Cities of Refuge:
4Now this is the case of the manslayer who may flee there and live: one who has killed another unwittingly, without having been his enemy in the past.
5For instance, a man goes with his neighbor into a grove to cut wood; as his hand swings the ax to cut down a tree, the ax-head flies off the handle and strikes the other so that he dies. That man shall flee to one of these cities and live.
While these verses provide a sanctuary space for individuals involved in manslaughter, the inclusion of these instructions underscores G!D’s perspective about justice, rehabilitation, and second chances.
Digging a little further, there is a discussion in the Talmud (Makkot 12b) about the experience of an individual who needs to flee to one of these Cities of Refuge. The Rabbis ask how to handle a scenario when “…in the case of a murderer who was exiled to a City of Refuge and the people of the city sought to honor him….” One of the primary questions this scenario brings up is what exactly an individual is supposed to be doing while in exile in one of these cities. Are they supposed to be working at a job? Are they allowed to hold a position of leadership? Are they just supposed to sit and do nothing?
The Talmud goes on to state: “he shall say to them: I am a murderer.”
I take this to mean that this individual is expected to be focused, first and foremost, on the inner-spiritual work of standing in Truth, with themselves and with the community. And their primary commitment is expected to be that they will work on their own rehabilitation by taking responsibility for themselves and their recovery. While this whole scenario involves providing sanctuary for a person involved in the involuntary loss of life, the tradition is also emphasizing how we are responsible for owning our part in any destruction that has befallen us: to stand in Truth.
The Talmud requires this individual to resist the urge to hide and to develop the strength to publicly disclose some of the darkest aspects of their life. Standing in Truth – whether it’s for a crime we’ve committed or destruction we have wrought or the lies we’ve been telling ourselves – is the starting (and sustaining place) for our spiritual recovery.
This Shabbat is the first Shabbat of Elul, the Hebrew month preceding the High Holy Days. The start of the month provides us with a countdown for the spiritual work of the High Holy Day season: refining ourselves, cleaning out our spiritual schmutz, and allowing ourselves to begin anew.
In the end, the Talmud concludes that following the disclosure about manslaughter, if the community does not rescind their offer, the individual is allowed to accept it. May our efforts to stand in Truth – over the next month and beyond – also allow for new opportunities, new spiritual growth, and possibly new honors.