Masaey – Refuge
There is a Mitzvah from the Torah to have cities of refuge. These cities served to protect people who murdered by mistake. Relatives of the murdered individual were expected to take revenge and to kill the murderer. There are many very interesting mitzvot connected with this.
The classic example of killing by mistake is the axe head flying off the handle and killing someone before it lands. The murderer must then run for his life to the city of refuge. According to the Torah the government must be sure that the roads which lead to the cities of refuge are well kept. This ensures an easy escape.
The city itself must be a medium sized city. It can not be close to international boundaries and must have water, food and business opportunity. Our Rabbis in the have expounded this concept of food and water to include that the murderers rabbi must go with the murderer to the city of refuge since the murderer can not be expected to survive without his rabbi. Additionally, If a rabbi killed someone by mistake his whole yeshivah must accompany him since he can not survive without his students.
The city of refuge must also be safe. Ropes can not be used to cord off areas and knives may not be sold within the city. This is so that the relatives of the victim do not come to the city for easy revenge.
It is absolutely forbidden for the murderer to pay ransom to the avengers so that he can be set free from the refugees life. Ransom would mean that a human life has a dollar value. Human life is priceless and ransom is repulsive to a Torah way of life.
The person who murdered by mistake can move back home only after the High Priest dies. This in itself is a discussion.
Archeological research has found that in the ancient East the pagans had cities of refuge. It is very beneficial for us to compare pagan justice to our holy Torah. This should strengthen our belief in the Torah. In Mesopotamia they had cities of refuge where anyone who enters would be protected from death by some pagan G-d. In these cities it was forbidden to kill even a dog.
Other Pagan Societies had cities of refuge where a person could even run away from his bill collectors.
In these cities we can see the twisting of justice. If a person murdered his peer in cold blood the gentile cities would offer refuge from the blood thirsty relatives. In our Perasha we are commanded that after it has been proven in a court of Jewish law that a person killed in cold blood he would be removed from the city of refuge and given to the vengeful relative. The Torah says: Take him from my alter in the Beit Hamikdash to die.
The Pagan cities of refuge were a joke compared to the justice found in the biblical cities of refuge.
Jacobson, in his book meditations on the Torah, makes a very important point. He says that the cities offered protection from family vengeance. The ancient East was dominated by wandering tribes. The central point of justice in these tribes was family honor. In the ancient East a father had power of life and death over his family. Likewise a member of a family would take revenge against another family if a crime was perpetrated against them. Such vengeful people could care less if there relative was killed by mistake or not.
A modern illustration of killing for family honor occurred in our Yeshivah in Israel. Ana, An Arab lady who lives in Silwan used to work for our Yeshivah. She had a teen-age daughter who liked to flirt with any boy she met. Apparently, this girl came home one day and informed her father that she was pregnant. He murdered her on the spot by cutting open her womb with a broken bottle.
The blood avenger in our story was certainly only after family honor. Our whole discussion is a reaction against such acts. Our Perasha informs us that the blood avenger may not kill a person who killed in cold blood until after a trial has taken place and two witnesses testify to have seen the murder take place. One witness is not sufficient. Circumstantial evidence is not even admissible. If one witness who testifies to have seen a crime is not enough how terrible is justice taken by individual families and clans against a person who made a grievous mistake.
This example of Justice in the Torah is only one of many. Hopefully in the future we will discuss more of them.
(The mothers of the High Priest would send lots of food and entertainment to the cities of refuge. She would do this to prevent the residents from praying for the death of her son.)