Cities Or Sanctuaries
Cities of Refuge are symbols of God's unconditional love and constant presence among people.
The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.
In the final parasha of the book of Numbers, Masei (Chapter 33:1 until the end), Israel stands just outside the Land, ready to start the settlement. First, all their travels and detours are reviewed; then laws pertaining to the division, settlement, and inheritance of the Land are given. The boundaries of the Land of Israel are described, with special cities of refuge for accidental manslayers are to be set up. Finally, the book of Numbers ends with a review of prohibitions against intermarriage and an affirmation of the claim of the daughters of Zelophehad. (See parashat Pinhas.)
"Then the Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, designate some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that a person accused of murder may not die before he stands trial before the assembly'" (Numbers 35:9-12).
The subject of chapter 35 is the ir miklat, or City of Refuge, to which people accused of killing could flee; they could not be harmed by the family members of the victim once they had reached these cities. If they were found to be guilty of deliberate, premeditated murder, they were then punished accordingly; if it was some kind of accident or crime of heated emotion, the slayer was assured of protection as long as he stayed in the city of refuge. These cities were part of the system of cities set up for the Levites, who as a tribe did not receive any regular portion of the Land, because of their role as ritual assistants to the priests.
Rabbi Meier Levi, a chaplain and psychologist, writes movingly about the tremendous, paralyzing guilt that can torment someone who may have some responsibility in another's death. The doctor who made a mistake, the careless driver, the person who didn't take the warning signs of suicide or depression seriously enough, the family member who has to make a terrible decision to end life support--in such a situation, one can easily imagine feeling that one's life is utterly destroyed, that one deserves to be rejected by both people and God. R. Levi then draws a parallel between the designation of a city of refuge with the building of God's Sanctuary in the center of the people: