Parashat Mas’ei, the last portion of Ba-Midbar, is both backward and forward looking in nature: It is backward looking, because it begins with a recapitulation of all the places the Israelites sojourned in the wilderness; and it is forward looking because it contains instructions about the conquest of Canaan and the allotment of the land to the various tribes. Each tribe was to get a portion of the Promised Land proportional to its population: bigger tribes would get larger parcels of land, and smaller tribes would receive smaller portions. The Parashah points out, however, that the tribe of Levi was not to receive a dedicated portion of land. Instead, each tribe would have to give up some of its land to build cities for the Levites — 48 cities in all, or 4 cities per tribal territory. Of these 48 cities, 6 were to be designated as ערי מקלט, cities of refuge.
The City of Refuge is one of the Torah’s more peculiar institutions. According to today’s portion, a City of Refuge was a place designated for a person who kills someone to flee to in order to be shielded from the גואל הדם, the blood avenger, a relative or friend of the dead person who is out for vengeance — dibs, by the way, on the band name “Blood Avengers.” Interestingly, the Torah does not ban the practice of blood vengeance. Perhaps it felt such a ban would have been ineffective in curtailing these apparently widespread crimes of passion. So instead of engaging in the futile act of prohibiting something that people were just going to keep doing anyway, the Torah rather seeks to prevent further bloodshed by protecting the killer from the avenger.
It is interesting, I think, that it is only after the killer has taken up residence in the City of Refuge that he or she is actually put on trial. One would think that the Torah should have the case adjudicated outside the city in order to ensure that only those individuals who fit the narrow criteria of accidental manslaughter, the category of people that the City of Refuge was designed to protect, would be allowed in, that steps would be taken to keep out murderers, to deny them entry altogether. But the Torah’s primary concern is protecting the individual seeking sanctuary from the bloodlust of the avenger, even if that individual seeking sanctuary is himself or herself a criminal.
In other words, with the institution of these sanctuary cities, the Torah is making a bold claim — that every single person, regardless of legal status — regardless, even, according to verse 15, of citizenship status — has the right to be shielded from those who would seek to do them harm. Put differently, one does not have to prove the validity of one’s asylum claim in order to be granted asylum. One does not even need to be a citizen in order to claim or be granted asylum. According to Maimonides, everyone who seeks asylum in a city of refuge must be given asylum. It is against Jewish law to refuse anyone. The assertion that your life is in danger, whoever you are, and whoever may or may not be threatening you, is sufficient. And furthermore, in commanding not only that these cities be built but that they welcome in anyone making a claim for asylum, the Torah also insists that the state has a reciprocal responsibility to protect all who seek the state’s protection — again, regardless of legal status, regardless of citizenship status.
Now, you might well say that this is all technically true from a practical point of view, but it’s not as though hardened criminals would get to stay in the sanctuary city indefinitely. In fairness, when a person arrived at a city of refuge, the court would send messengers to bring him in for a trial. These messengers, by the way, also acted as bodyguards, protecting the accused from blood avengers. If it was decided that the individual had committed murder, he or she would be judged accordingly (and ultimately put to death). But if the judges determined that the killing was truly unintentional, the messengers would return him to the city of refuge. It’s important to bear in mind that, in practice, we know that the ancient courts almost never convicted people of capital homicide. The standards of evidence and testimony that the rabbinic tradition established and honored made it exceedingly rare for anyone to actually be found guilty of murder. Thus, we learn in the Mishnah: “A court that executes a person once in seven years is called a murderous court. R. Eleazar ben Azariah says ‘Even once in 70 years!’ (M. Makkot 1:10). So, in practice, sanctuary was granted both to people who probably committed murder but were exonerated thanks to some technicality, as well as to people who were truly innocent of a capital offense. Anyone claiming the state’s protection could take refuge in a Sanctuary City.
Moreover, the Jewish legal tradition explains that the Cities of Refuge were more than mere citadels to shelter refugees from blood avengers. They of course had to provide protection, but they also had to be sufficiently livable places. For starters, they had to be easy and safe to access. The roads leading to the cities had to be easy for a refugee to navigate: Valleys were raised, hills were leveled, and bridges were built to make it easier to travel. There had to be adequate directional signage. And the state of the roads had to be thoroughly examined every year to make sure they were in good repair. In addition, the sanctuary cities could not be cut off from society and commerce. They had to be situated near populous trading centers.
Given all this, it goes without saying that the state was obligated to provide for the basic needs of all the inhabitants of sanctuary cities: The city had to have an independent water source so as to ensure a suitable and uninterrupted water supply. The state had to supply the residents of sanctuary cities with sufficient food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare. But the state’s obligations went beyond basic needs, however, to cultural and religious ones as well: if a student became a refugee, his teacher had to be moved to the city of refuge so that he could continue to teach him Torah. If a teacher took up asylum, his school had to be uprooted and relocated in the sanctuary city. If the population in a City of Refuge were ever to dwindle, the state would have to transfer citizens — including priests, Levites, and average Israelites — from elsewhere to fill it back up. There is even a charming tradition that teaches the mother of the High Priest would personally bring the best foods and the finest clothes to spoil the inhabitants of the Cities of Refuge, asking in return only that they pray for the welfare of her child. The Cities of Refuge were thus never permitted to become indefinite holding cells, ghettos, or detention camps. They had to be places of civilization — of culture, of religion, of society — places of thriving. For “man does not live by bread alone,” as the book of Deuteronomy puts it. Rather, all human beings require meaning, purpose, and relationships — in addition to basic necessities — in order to live and thrive.
It’s unclear if these Cities of Refuge ever existed, or if they were simply one of the Torah’s more utopian visions that was never fully realized. But what is abundantly clear is how far we are today in this country from upholding the fundamental moral message of the Cities of Refuge.
Today, thousands upon thousands of people are fleeing some of the most dangerous and impoverished places in the world — places like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. I know how dangerous they are. I have been fortunate to travel to Honduras and Guatemala with American Jewish World Service and have seen the violence and the desperation first-hand. I have met victims of unthinkable abuses — both those sponsored by the state and those that the state is powerless or unwilling to prevent — people whose livelihood and bodies are under assault each and every day. Spend a week in the inner cities and rural hamlets of Guatemala and you will quickly understand why folks are willing to leave behind everything they know and walk on foot — sometimes carrying infants in arms — for weeks through dangerous terrain and in perilous conditions; evading gangs, cartels, and violent criminals in order to seek safe haven and opportunity in our country. The migrants coming to our border by the thousands are literally running for their lives, hoping to be let into our City of Refuge.
But instead of building safe and navigable roads for them, we are building walls, erecting guard towers, and stationing soldiers to prevent them from entering. Instead of providing them with sanctuary, we are locking them up in detention centers, where they are routinely denied suitable living conditions, sufficient food and water, and necessary medical care. Instead of providing them places to thrive, safe from their pursuers and free from fear, we are tearing children away from their parents and putting them in cages. And as if these outrages were insufficient, just this week, several new policies were announced that amount, effectively, to an end to even the semblance of an asylum system in the US, leaving some of the most desperate people on the planet vulnerable to their dangerous pursuers.
By the way, this is an important point to underscore for those who maintain that those who want to come to the United States should do so through legal channels, that the problem is not immigration but illegal immigration. Our current immigration and asylum laws are extraordinarily restrictive. We let in very few people, especially if they are from Central America. And even for those who qualify, the process is extremely cumbersome and the wait lengthy. Not enough people at risk qualify. Furthermore, even many of those who do qualify cannot afford to wait for their claims to be processed. By the time we deem them worthy to be let in, they may very well be dead. So it is not enough to insist on legal immigration. We must also demand that our laws be changed so that all who seek refuge here can easily do so.
Indeed, my very point is that we as a country are making a choice to treat Central American migrants seeking asylum as criminals, rather than as human beings in need of our help. The Torah’s Cities of Refuge are instructive for us precisely because they are founded on the principle that those seeking refuge must not be regarded as criminals. This is true even though, in the case of the Cities of Refuge, everyone who was seeking asylum was a killer; many were out and out murderers. But the basic moral message behind the Cities of Refuge is this: anyone who claims to be at risk is entitled to asylum, regardless of legal status, regardless of citizenship. According to the Torah, we simply have no right to deny refuge to anyone fleeing for their lives. We are commanded to presume the truth of their claims and to presume their innocence; to take them in and to care for them; to provide for their security, their sustenance, and their spiritual well-being. According to the Torah, everyone has a right to sanctuary. And that means, according to the Torah, we have a responsibility to provide it — an obligation to grant sanctuary to all who seek it.
That obligation is by nature communal. Each of us individually are not required to set up Cities of Refuge in our backyards and basements. But what we are required to do, I think, is demand of our government — which is the representative and agent of our body politic — that it upholds and acts upon our values, our ideas, and our commitments. That is why this Tisha B’Av we are joining with Jewish communities across the country — and with communities of conscience from all over our region — to protest our current immigration system, to speak out against the abuses being perpetrated in our name, and to demand a change in course. I invite you to join us here on Sunday, August 11 at 4pm to stand up for our values and to stand with the oppressed.
Just a few days ago, I was privileged to take my kids to see the Statue of Liberty for the first time, the emblem of refuge who stands upon the words “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” I told them about “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” the homeless, our ancestors, tempest-tost to this land of promise. I tried to remind them that we are part of a nation of and by immigrants, that we descend from a perennially homeless people, that we believe that all human beings have been created equally in the Divine Image, even though, as we spoke, thousands of migrants were being subjected to unthinkable brutality on our watch. So I pray that we, we who bear the burden of our history and we who embrace our Torah, have the clarity to see what is happening now for what it is. May our hearts be softened and our passions ignited. And may we recommit ourselves to lifting our lamps beside the golden door, welcoming all in need of sanctuary to this land of refuge.