"When you cross the Jordan to the land of Canaan, you shall designate cities for yourself, cities of refuge shall they be for you, and a murderer shall flee there - one who takes life unintentionally. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, so that the murderer will not die until he stands before the assembly for judgment." (Bamidbar 35:10-12)

The Law of Sanctuary would have to be ranked as one of the most difficult Torah laws for the modern mind to comprehend. As it is developed in the Talmud (Makot, Ch. 2) and recorded in Maimonides, (Laws of Murder and Preservation of Life, Chs. 5-8) it unfolds in the following fashion.



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  1. The perpetrator of a homicide must flee to one of the cities of refuge immediately following the death of the victim in order to avoid being killed by the avenger, the victim's next of kin. This applies to all homicides, inadvertent or premeditated, and regardless of whether the perpetrator is liable for the homicide under due process of law or not. The only exception is a homicide that is clearly the result of freak accident.



  2. The court then returns the perpetrator under escort to face judgment in the venue where the act was committed. If he is found guilty of murder, he is duly executed. If the court finds that the homicide was the result of a freak accident, totally unforeseeable by anyone, he is exonerated and returns to normal life. But if the homicide is the result of a foreseeable accident (i.e. there was some degree of negligence involved), he must flee once again to a city of sanctuary to avoid being killed by the avenger, who still has the right to kill him.



  3. The perpetrator of a homicide must remain in a city of sanctuary until the High Priest who held office when his act was committed dies. If he leaves the city of sanctuary for any reason before the death of the High Priest, he faces being killed by the avenger. He is safe only in the confines of a city of sanctuary.



  4. If the homicide was the result of the reckless disregard of human life, or if it was an act of premeditated murder that is not judiciable under Torah law (for example, there was no formal warning issued to the murderer prior to the commission of his act, or if there is only circumstantial evidence of perpetration, or only a single eye witness) even the Cities of Sanctuary cannot shelter him from the avenger, who has the right to kill him anywhere.


The whole process sounds like it is taken straight out of the Wild West. How can we reconcile this apparently savage process with the high standard of civilized behavior generally demanded by the Torah in interpersonal interactions? What happened to due process of law?



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Let us first look at the issue of fault, a problem that presents a dual aspect. When a victim is felled by an unintended accident, the death seems much more attributable to the workings of Divine Providence than to the fault of the perpetrator. Why should he have to face being killed by the avenger for a tragedy that would appear to be more God's fault than his? Besides, the whole process is wrong. If he is considered to be at fault, the perpetrator deserves death by due process or not at all; how does it make sense to place his fate in the hands of the avenger? Furthermore, isn't there a specific prohibition in the Torah against revenge?

"You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your fellow as yourself." (Vayikra 19:18)

Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish opened his lecture on the portion of homicide from the verse:

But if he did not lie in wait, but God caused it to come to his hand...(Exodus 21:13)

Regarding this verse, the prophet Samuel says:

"As the proverb of the Ancient One says, 'from the wicked comes forth wickedness.' " (1 Samuel 24:14)

What is this verse talking about? It concerns two murderers, one killed inadvertently and one intentionally. There was witness to either event. God arranges for them to stay at the same hotel where the following scene unfolds in the presence of witnesses. The one who killed deliberately ends up sitting under a ladder that the one who killed inadvertently is descending. He slips and falls on top of the murderer sitting at the foot of the ladder and crushes him to death. The result: the guilty murderer receives his just punishment, execution; while the inadvertent killer is forced into exile, also receiving his just deserts. (Makot 10b)

Rabbi Shimon is obviously grappling with the notion of fault. Let us try and follow his thinking.



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The commentators explain that the 'proverb of the Ancient Ones' is a reference to the Torah. No doubt this is true, but it doesn't explain why the Torah is referred to in such an odd way in connection to the subject of killers in particular. The reference is clearly not accidental; this method of referring to the Torah is a unique phenomenon in all of Scriptures. The Maharsha, a great Talmudic commentator, hints at the answer.

Exile was the very first punishment mentioned by the Torah, imposed on Adam for having inadvertently brought about the mortality of mankind, allowing the angel of death entry into this world by committing the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Soon thereafter, Cain suffered the same fate for the inadvertent murder of his brother Able. (This murder is also considered inadvertent; Cain did not know that you could kill a human being, who is primarily spiritual, by stabbing his body repeatedly.)

Rabbi Shimon is telling us that exile is a phenomenon as old as man, and we can only learn to comprehend it by studying the lives of the Ancient Ones, the archetypes of humanity, Adam and Cain.



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When Adam was exiled from the Garden of Eden, God stated the grounds:

"And YHVH God said, 'Behold, man has become like the Unique One among us, Knowing good and bad; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the Tree of Life, and eat and live forever.' " (Genesis 3:22)

The specific grounds of banishment: the exile is necessary so that the means of gaining eternal life can be placed beyond man's reach.

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, in his work Nefesh Hachaim (Gate 1:6) finds this puzzling. Jewish tradition teaches that God created man with the specific intention of granting him eternal life. Why should God, the Supremely Benevolent, be opposed to the prospect of man attaining such eternal life when that is what He intended to extend to man in any case?

Let us add another question to the one asked by Rabbi Chaim. All Divine punishments are measure for measure. The banishment of Adam from the Garden of Eden could not possibly be justified on the sole grounds of a precautionary step designed to prevent man from partaking of the tree of life. As the banishment from the Garden of Eden is clearly a punishment, it must also constitute the 'measure for measure' consequence of man's sin. It is therefore fair to enquire in what manner banishment from the Garden of Eden constitutes a measured response to the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge?



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First, Rabbi Chaim's answer to his own question: it is to man's own benefit to die. Following his sin, man no longer has the capacity to transform his physicality into spirituality. If he were to somehow acquire the ability to live forever in his present, post-sin state, he would be doomed to perpetual conflict, the tug of war between his spiritual and physical sides tearing him apart forever. As long as the physical side of his nature remained untransformed man would never be able to cleave to God wholeheartedly, the only way to enjoy eternal life. The present war between his Neshama, or soul that naturally desires to cleave to God, and his physical self, which is unable to appreciate such a connection, and therefore resists it with all its might, would continue forever unabated.

The state of perfect joy and tranquility, reflective of the total unity with Himself that God intended as man's reward in the World to Come, can only be attained if man's soul manages to transform his body into an entity that can harmonize fully with spirituality, bringing the conflict between his body and soul to a peaceful conclusion. This power to transform the body was indeed programmed into man's soul at creation, but it was neutralized by man's sin. His body became too soiled to allow for instant transformation. He had to be banished from the Garden of Eden to insure that he experienced death for his own good.

How does death help man? When he dies, his body returns to its basic elements and becomes purified. It can be returned to him in its pure, pristine state at the time of the resurrection, in the sort of mint condition which the soul was imbued with the power to transform. In order to enjoy his eternal life man must first die. He dies in order to live.

We express this connection between death and eternal life three times daily in our prayers:

"Who is comparable to You, O Master of mighty deeds, and who is comparable to You, O King who causes death and restores life and makes salvation sprout. And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead...."


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If we examine the implications, we are being told that sin destroys the potential for eternal life within the physical self. By gaining a bit of insight into the spiritual side of physicality we can understand how this must be so according to the rules of 'measure for measure'. We can touch the inner core of Rabbi Chaim's thought.

In a previous article, (see Mayanot, Balak) we explained that physicality is really the outward expression of the spiritual state of separation. In order to perceive myself as a creature that is separate and independent of God, I must find an alternative source from which to draw the life force that keeps me alive. If I have a body, the explanation is obvious. I can tell myself that I am alive because my body supports me. This answer suffices as long as I am mortal. But my body cannot support me through eternity. If I lived forever it could not provide me with an alternative life source.

The law of entropy prevails in the physical universe. All physical systems tend towards disorder. To preserve local order against a background in which everything tends to disorder requires an infusion of energy. To keep a system from disintegrating into disorder forever would require the input of an infinite amount of energy. There is no store of infinite energy to draw on in the physical universe. To find a source of infinite energy there is no alternative to turning to God. Man as a physical being can only survive eternally if God keeps pumping fresh energy into his system to overcome the law of entropy.

A person can only sin even accidentally if he can imagine himself being able to exist as separate from God. Those who walk next to the edges of cliffs rarely slip and fall. They are too pumped up with anxiety to let their guard slip; the objective insecurity of their situations keeps such people ever vigilant and alert. But remove the same people from the cliff-edge into some pastoral scene and they will easily trip on objects in plain view. We only fall into accidents when we are lulled into a sense of security.

Anyone who can only picture life in a state of connectedness with God is perfectly sheltered from falling into inadvertent sin in the same way as the person walking on the edge of a cliff. Sin is the cliff edge that threatens to sever his connection with God and therefore his life. But for someone who feels that his body will keep him alive even if he detaches from God, the prospect of sin is not that terrifying. True, he will ultimately have to face the music, but instant death is not on the agenda. It is all too easy for such a person to stumble and fall into sin.

Adam's sin bears testimony to his sense of separation from God. As such, it is to be equated with defining himself as a living being in terms of physicality. When he sinned, Adam's body lost the capacity for eternal life because it had to serve Adam as a life source apparently independent of God. As we have pointed out, only a mortal body fits this description. As he was reduced to mortality, he was also banished to a physical world that conformed to the rules of existence in a state of separation from God. Adam's exile was indeed measure for measure. Adam's exile was also a refuge. Only the world of physicality could support him according to his self-definition.



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Let us now consider the case of Cain:

"Therefore, you are cursed more than the ground which opened wide its mouth to receive you brother's blood from your hand. When you work the ground it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a vagrant and a wanderer on earth." (Genesis 4:11-12)

Cain was the first one to suffer the punishment of banishment as it is described in our Parsha.

Like the murderer of our Parsha, Cain was left vulnerable to the avenger:

"Cain said to God, 'Is my iniquity too great to be borne? Behold, you have banished me today from the face of the earth? I must become a vagrant and a wanderer on earth; whoever meets me will kill me.' " (Ibid. 13-14)

God also offered Cain sanctuary. As there were no cities of Sanctuary back then, He substituted the famous mark of Cain:

"And God placed a mark upon Cain, so that none that meet him might kill him." (Ibid. 15)

The Tanya explains:(Ch.24) Man is created in the image of God. As long as he is free of personal sin, not only does he inspire outright fear among all animals, his fellow human beings also approach him with awe; all living creatures are subconsciously sensitive to the Divine image man embodies. When Cain killed Able, he lost the capacity to encapsulate the Divine image in his physical person. God is the ultimate giver of life; what is more, He created the universe to provide a platform on which human beings can function and operate. The murderer is the very antithesis of the Divine Image; not only does he destroy life instead of giving it, he also pulls the rug of the universe out from under the feet of his victim.

By becoming this living antithesis of God, Cain forfeited his right to benefit from the protective shield provided by his Divine Image and became vulnerable to attack by all the creatures of the field; he lost the aura of holiness that elicits instant trust from other human beings, even total strangers, and became instead a target of suspicion and distrust. Creation itself no longer functioned for him. God created the universe to serve humanity; the destroyer of humanity has no claim to any of its benefits. Thus Cain was unable to settle down in any place; no place on earth would support him. The only way he could survive was by wandering. As long as he never claimed any place as exclusively his, his presence did not have the effect of shutting down the productivity of the area he was in.

The 'mark of Cain' that God provided him with as protection does not replace the protective shield supplied by the Divine image that the righteous embodies. The Divine Image is inherent in an unspoiled human being; it comes from within; the mark of Cain is a brand of shame that is artificially imposed from without.


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According to the Tanya, this idea provides the explanation of the story of Daniel and the lion's pit. As Daniel was a Tzadik, a righteous person, in full possession of his unspoiled Divine image, he was under no threat from any wild beast. The lions did not react to him as a physical creature and therefore a potential food source; they were overawed by the power of the human soul made manifest in Daniel's Divine Image. The fact that they did not attack him is not miraculous, but a natural phenomenon that should set the tone of every confrontation between a person cast in God's Divine image and a wild animal.

Unlike the expulsion of Adam, Cain's exile is a phenomenon that can be understood in terms of our present world. Even after his exile from the Garden of Eden and a retreat to a life-span that can be fully supported by the human body, the unspoiled human still carries the badge of a being cast in God's Image. But he can carry this badge only as long as he remains sensitive to the mark of this badge in others.


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Cain's act of murder, although inadvertent, demonstrated his lack of sensitivity to the Divine aspect of human beings. Once again we are at the edge of the cliff. If I am sensitive to the mark of Divinity in my fellow humans it is impossible for me to kill anyone inadvertently. My sense of awe in the face of the living embodiment of the Divine Image renders the prospect of reacting to a fellow human as simply another life form unthinkable. Nobody sane has the temerity to attack God or the being that reflects His glory even inadvertently. To be capable of murder, no matter how inadvertent, you must have grown insensitive to the Divine Image embedded in your fellow human being.

Logic tells us that whoever is insensitive to the Divine Image in others must also lack any awareness of this attribute in himself and leads to the conclusion that the murderer must have lost the awareness of his own spirituality long before he confronted the situation that resulted in his crime. In this, he is no different then the rest of us. If so, why aren't all of us who are insensitive to the divinity we embody liable to exile? The solution is in the concept of 'measure for measure.'


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The rest of us may have lost the sense of our Divinity through our carelessness, but the loss is not irretrievable. We have done no act that condemns us to forfeit the privilege of representing God. We always have the potential to regain our sense of Divinity by rededicating our lives to connecting with God, and this potential alone is sufficient to allow life to continue for us as usual.

But the murderer deserves to lose his Divine Image. Retribution is 'measure for measure'. He deprived his fellow human being of the ability to embody this image in the world and therefore he deprived himself of the right to display it through his act:

"Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God He made man."(Genesis 9:6)

The earth will no longer support the murderer, and he is doomed to wander.

But he is in a better situation than Cain. The Cities of Sanctuary are also the cities of the Levites who possess a unique ability to shelter the murderer. (Makot 10a) The Levites are a special class of human beings among the Jewish people who were set apart to personify the way human beings fashioned in God's image should live. Rather than being allotted a distinct tribal portion of their own, they live scattered among the rest of Jewry, on land that is considered the portion of God.

God said to Aaron:

"In their land you shall have no heritage, and a share you shall not have among them; I am your share and your heritage among the people of Israel." (Bamidbar 18:20)

As Levite land is God's portion, it can never be detached from Him by anyone. The murderer's own portion will not support him, but he is unable to affect God's. As long as he remains within God's city he has a place in the world and he can obtain sanctuary.

This idea is emphasized by the fact that the murderer can also obtain sanctuary by standing on top of the Altar in the Temple (Ibid 12a). The idea is that as long as the murderer remains in God's domain, he is sheltered from the consequences of having detached himself from God by losing his right to embody the Divine Image.

But the murderer who leaves the City of Sanctuary, is understandably liable to be killed by the avenger. A human being who is permanently deprived of the privilege of being the embodiment of God's Image is more dangerous than any wild animal. Unlike the wild animal, he superficially resembles the rest of us. Since we are all unfortunately insensitive to our own Divine Image, we cannot recognize the lack of the Image in him. We cannot guard ourselves against him, and we need to be on our guard, because his very existence is a threat to us all. A public menace is not entitled to mercy. He must be eliminated for the welfare of all.