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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 thirty-two cubits.1 “Refuge, Refuge” was written at all crossroads, so that the murderers should recognize the way and turn there. (Mishneh Torah, Laws Regarding Murder and the Preservation of Life 8:5)

The “cities of refuge” were six cities in the Land of Israel designated as havens for murderers. A person who killed would flee to the nearest city of refuge, where he would be safe from the vengeance of his victim’s closest relative (the “avenger of the blood”) until he was brought to trial before the Sanhedrin, a tribunal of twenty-three judges that tried capital cases.2 It was the court’s responsibility to ensure the accessibility of the cities of refuge by improving the roads leading to them and posting signs with the words miklat, miklat (“refuge, refuge”) to show the way.

On the spiritual plane, there also exist six “cities of refuge” for the spiritual “murderer.” Life, in the true and ultimate sense, is connection with the divine source of being and vitality;3 an act of transgression against the divine will is a subtle form of “murder,” as it hinders the flow of vitality from G‑d to creation. The words of the Torah, say our sages, are the “cities of refuge” for the destroyer of spiritual life:4 if he flees into the Torah and immerses himself in it, the Torah will protect him from the adverse results of his deed.

The Torah contains 613 mitzvot, or commandments. However, the great majority of them require certain circumstances to obligate and enable their fulfillment: there are mitzvot that can be observed only at certain hours of the day, or only on certain days of the year; mitzvot that can be observed only in the Land of Israel, or only in the Holy Temple; mitzvot that pertain only to men, only to kohanim (“priests”), only to employers, or only to farmers; and so on. But there are six mitzvot—to believe in G‑d, to avow His oneness, to renounce idolatry, to love G‑d, to fear Him, and to avoid temptation to sin—that pertain to all times, to all individuals, to all places and in all circumstances, so that they are readily accessible to one who seeks refuge from his faults and failings, whomever he might be and wherever and whenever the desire to rectify his life might strike him. These are the six readily accessible spiritual “cities of refuge” for the errant soul.5

But a haven is of little use if it is inaccessible or its location is unknown. As is the case with the physical cities of refuge, it is the community’s responsibility to “straighten the roads . . . to repair them and broaden them . . . remove all impediments and obstacles” and post signs at all crossroads.

This imperative has special meaning to us today, when the roads of life are teeming with spiritual refugees. It is our sacred duty to station ourselves at all the crossroads and serve as living signposts, calling out “Refuge! Refuge!” and pointing the way to the haven of Torah.6

Footnotes
1.
Approximately 48 feet.
2.
If the “avenger of the blood” killed the killer outside of the city of refuge, he was not punished; if he did so inside the city, he was tried as a murderer. In those cases in which the Sanhedrin determined that the killing was unintentional (though due to the killer’s negligence), the killer was returned to the city of refuge to serve a sentence of exile, during which the city continued to protect him from the “avenger of the blood.”
3.
See Deuteronomy 4:4 and 30:20; Talmud, Berachot 18b.
4.
Talmud, Makkot 10a.
5.
See introduction to Sefer HaChinuch.
6.
Based on Likkutei Sichot, vol. 2, pp. 363–366.
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of MeaningfulLife.com. If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email permissions@meaningfullife.com.
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Mel January 21, 2015

beautiful article!! Reply

Anonymous Camarillo, CA July 31, 2011

Reponse to question from Pomona Everyone, including murderers, was entitled to seek temporary refuge to avoid being killed in cold blood without a trial. After the trial, a murderer would be executed and only a manslaughterer would be able to live out his days in the city of refuge. However, both could use it to avoid being killed prior to the trial. Reply

Michelle July 30, 2011


G-d bless you more...

and thanks again... for enabling me to see and feel equally respected and giving me your time through a response and subsequent feedback.

much love Reply

Anonymous Pomona, Ca via chabadinlandempire.com July 28, 2011

Murderers? Please clarify for me, if you don't mind. It is my understanding that the Torah makes a clear distinction between "murder" and "man slaughter". I was of the impression that the Cities of Refuge were reserved for those who committed (or could have attributed to them) the act of manslaughter i.e. taking a life without intent and ill will. Where as those who commit murder (and of course were warned by two aidime etc.) were liable to death them selves. Am I incorrect in my understanding of who has legal rights to seek refuge? Reply

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