"The City of Refuge" by Charles Foster, 1897
"The City of Refuge" by Charles Foster, 1897

Providing sanctuary for refugees is a Biblical imperative

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Numbers 30:2–36:13

A number of years ago around this time of year, I traveled through various parts of Hawaii. One place in particular, a historical park on the Big Island, strikes me as especially relevant this week, as we read the double Torah portion Matot-Masei.

In traditional Hawaiian culture, if a person broke a taboo, betrayed a trust, harmed someone or was a noncombatant during a time of war, they were in very big trouble, regardless of whether they’d committed an actual transgression or were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Often, they only had one place to turn in order to find safety — it was called a pu’uhonua, a place of refuge. It was the ruins of one of these places of refuge that I visited during my trip.

Once inside the boundaries of the pu’uhonua, nobody could touch you — no blood could be shed within its walls. The place of refuge was sacred ground, and anyone who violated its sanctity would themselves become guilty of a great offense.

While inside this safe haven, those who had committed wrongs were given a second chance, a new lease on life. They had time to offer prayers, perform rituals of contrition, ask for forgiveness.

If we look deep into our own, ancient narrative in the Torah, we find a parallel tradition. In a somewhat obscure section of this week’s Torah portion, in Numbers chapter 35, we find a description of arei ha-miklat, the Israelite cities of refuge.

These six cities — three were on the west of the Jordan River and three on the east — served a vital role in ancient Biblical life. Like their Hawaiian counterparts, these cities were the last hope for some people, places of protection where no blood could be spilled.

There were already laws, rules and practices in place for atoning for sins, property disputes and conflicts between neighbors or family members. What wasn’t clear was how to deal with a situation when somebody was killed unintentionally.

In that era and context of intertribal vendettas, you were as good as dead, even if the death you were responsible for was purely the result of an accident — and accidents occurred constantly in a world where work was often very physical and very dangerous.

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The priests and Levites would be of little help to you if someone wanted to avenge a death by coming after you to kill you as “payback.” Since Judaism is a religion based on justice, that urges us over and over again to pursue justice, it had to find a just solution to this dilemma.

The arei miklat, the cities of refuge, were created for precisely this reason — both to save innocent lives and to try to construct a society where justice, not vengeance, was the guiding principle.

With the pursued (and likely terrified) individual safe within the confines of a sanctuary city, the wheels of justice could start to turn: Witnesses would be called, trials held and judgments made.

If the accidental death was caused by negligence or some other transgression, then the appropriate punishment would be meted out or the proper restitution made. If the unintentional death was not the result of negligence, then no crime had truly occurred. The innocent person could leave the city if that person chose to and try to start over with a clean slate.

The city of refuge would have saved a life and, as Judaism subsequently teaches us, one who saves a single life is treated as one who has saved the entire world.

As was the situation in native Hawaii and back in the Biblical era, there are still people in this world seeking protection and shelter — there are still refugees out there in search of safe havens, refugees with broken hearts, wounded souls and perplexed minds.

We need to welcome those people. We need to create open, hospitable environments within which we make room for seeking, questioning, challenging, evolving.

Today, our synagogues and Jewish institutions must become sanctuaries, communities that are welcoming and inclusive, that open their tents as far as they can stretch.

The postmodern sanctuary can no longer be a mere physical structure with walls, doors and pulpits. Rather, it should be a mode of being, a refuge for seekers and strugglers, a resting place for the restless and the weary, a shelter where personal and communal transformation is not only possible, but encouraged.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."