Parashat Masei

Refugee Awareness

Lessons from the biblical cities of refuge.

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When it comes to dealing with the reality of displaced people, the biblical institution of cities of refuge provide us with a Jewish foundation for pro-action. The rabbinic treatment of cities of refuge adds some remarkable details to the biblical text which underscores the special sensitivity with which our tradition has classically approached refugee problems.

In the Talmud, the cities of refuge are discussed in a number of places. In tractate Baba Batra 100a-b we find a striking teaching within a seemingly mundane legal discussion concerning the proper width of a variety of pathways: "Our Rabbis taught: A private path is of the width of four cubits; a path from one town to another is to have a width of eight cubits; a public road, 16 cubits; the road to the cities of refuge, 32 cubits."

What is noteworthy about this teaching is that we find that the road to a city of refuge was required to be twice as wide as an ordinary public road. Elaborating on the Talmud, the Rambam (Maimonides) asserts:

"The court is obligated to straighten the roads to the cities of refuge, to repair them and broaden them. They must remove all impediments and obstacles... bridges should be built (over all natural barriers) so as not to delay one who is fleeing to [the city of refuge]. The width of a road to a city of refuge should not be less than 32 cubits. "Refuge, Refuge" was written at all crossroads so that the perpetrator of manslaughter should recognize the way and turn there."

These teachings reflect something remarkable about the rabbinic attitude toward cities of refuge. The emphasis on the great width and sound condition of the roads leading to cities of refuge, coupled with the injunction to widely publicize the existence of such paths, illustrates the seriousness with which the rabbis approached this biblically mandated communal responsibility.

If our tradition displays such concern for people who have themselves committed murder, even if unintentionally, how much more so should we feel compelled to protect these tens of millions of refugees, the bulk of whom are not themselves criminals but rather innocent bystanders driven from their homes as a result of wars and violence.

Living in an age of global media, we cannot feign ignorance to these humanitarian crises regardless of where they may be occurring. And armed with the knowledge of these emergencies, we are faced, as individuals, communities, and as nations, with the choice of whether or not to respond.

There are many things that we can do to support the plight of our world's refugees. We can support the important work of organizations like Refugees International and UNHCR. We can raise awareness in our Jewish communities of the global refugee crisis. And we can make our voices heard by our President and members of Congress to encourage increased funding for refugee assistance and to promote a greater willingness toward resettling refugees in the U.S.   

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Rabbi Jacob E. Fine

Jacob Elisha Fine is rabbi and assistant director of Hillel at the University of Washington in Seattle.