In the Torah section of Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9) we read of the cities of refuge, to which a man who had killed accidentally could flee, finding sanctuary and atonement. The chassidic masters note that Shoftim is always read in the month of Elul—for Elul is, in time, what the cities of refuge were in space. It is a month of sanctuary and repentance, a protected time in which a person can turn from the shortcomings of his past and dedicate himself to a new and sanctified future.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe analyzes an important feature of the cities: they were only to be found in the land of Israel, even though the judges and officers who executed Torah law were to be appointed wherever Jews live. Why does the law extend everywhere, while refuge belongs to the Holy Land? And what does this imply for the month of Elul, our place of spiritual refuge in the calendar of the Jewish year?

A Paradox

Sifri interprets the opening verse of our Parshah, “You shall set judges and officers in all your gates,” to apply to “all your dwelling places,” even those outside Israel. It then continues: One might think that cities of refuge were also to exist outside the land of Israel. Therefore the Torah uses the restrictive expression “these are the cities of refuge” to indicate that they were to be provided only within Israel.

Nonetheless, Sifri says that someone who committed accidental homicide outside the land of Israel and fled to one of the cities of refuge would be granted sanctuary there. It was the cities themselves, not the people they protected, that were confined to the land of Israel.

The fact that Sifri initiates a comparison between the “judges and officers” and the cities of refuge indicates that they have a relationship to one another. It is this: The judges who applied the law and the officers who executed the sentences did not aim at retribution, but at the refinement of the guilty. And the aim of the cities of refuge was to impose on the fugitive an atoning exile—atonement in the sense of a remorse which effaces the crime until he regains his original closeness to G‑d’s will.

We might then have thought that if this safeguard, this place of atonement, was available in the holy environment of the land of Israel, it would be all the more necessary outside its borders, where it was easier to fall into wrongdoing. And yet only judges and officers were to be provided beyond Israel’s borders—only the agents of the law, not its refuge.

Transcendence or Empathy

There are two phases in teshuvah, or repentance. There is remorse over what has been done, and commitment to act differently in the future. These are inextricably connected. For the only test of sincere remorse is the subsequent commitment to a better way of life. To be contrite about the past without changing one’s behavior is a hollow gesture.

This is the deeper significance of the law that the city of refuge is found only in the land of Israel. For a man could not atone while clinging to the environment which led him to sin. He might feel remorse, but he would not have taken the decisive step away from his past. For this, he had to escape to the “land of Israel,” i.e., to holiness. There, on its sanctified earth, his commitment to a better future could have substance.

Judges, however, could be appointed outside the land of Israel. For it is written in Ethics of the Fathers, “Do not judge your fellow man until you come to his place.” A court which sits in the land of Israel cannot know the trials and temptations which exist outside, or the difficulties of being loyal to one’s faith in a place of exile. The land of Israel is a land where “the eyes of the L‑rd your G‑d are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.” It is a land of divine grace. One cannot judge a man by its standards if that man lives outside its protection.

So judges had to be drawn from the same environment as their defendants. They had not only to know what he had done; they had to experience for themselves the environment which brought him to it.

Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch (the second Chabad rebbe) was once giving private audiences, when he interrupted them for some time before continuing. It transpired that a man who had had an audience wanted the rebbe’s help in setting right a particularly degrading act he had done. The rebbe later said to one of his close disciples that one must discover some analogous quality in oneself, on however refined a level, before one can help someone to remedy his sin. His interruption of the audiences had been to attempt to find in himself this point from which he could identify with the sinner.

It was this principle that lay behind G‑d’s command to Moses when the Israelites had made the Golden Calf: “Go, get yourself down, for your people have dealt corruptly.” For at that moment, Moses was inhabiting the spiritual heights of Mount Sinai, neither eating nor drinking, divorced from the world. The Israelites were degraded through their sin. But by telling him to “go down” to “your people,” G‑d created a bond between Moses and the people, on the basis of which Moses was able to plead on their behalf.

Three Degrees of Refuge

Although all the cities of refuge were to be in the land of Israel, they were not all in the same territory. There were the three in the land of Israel proper—the Holy Land. Three were in the territories east of the Jordan, where “manslaughter was common” (Talmud, Makkot 9b). And when in the messianic era “the L‑rd your G‑d will enlarge your borders,” three more will be provided in the newly occupied land.

This means that every level of spirituality has its own refuge, from the relatively lawless eastern territories to the Holy Land, and even in the world of Moshiach. And this is true spiritually as well as geographically. At every stage of one’s religious life, there is the possibility of some shortcoming for which there must be refuge and atonement. Even if a person never disobeys G‑d’s will, he may still not have done all within his power to draw close to G‑d.

This is the task of the month of Elul. It is a time of self-examination, when each person must ask himself whether what he has achieved was all that he could have achieved. And if not, he must repent, and strive towards a more fulfilled future. Businessman and scholar—the one who has lived in the world and the one who has spent his days under the canopy of the Torah—both must make Elul a time of self-reckoning and refuge.

It is the way of the Western world to make Elul, the month of high summer, a time for vacation from study. The opposite should be the case. It is, above all, the time for self-examination, a time to change one’s life. And the place for this is the city of refuge in the “Holy Land,” which, in the geography of the soul, is a place of Torah.

Each Jew should set aside Elul, or at least from the 18th onwards (the last 12 days, a day for each month of the year), or at any rate the days when selichot are said, and make his refuge in a place of Torah.

A refuge is a place to which one flees—that is, where one lays aside one’s past and makes a new home. Elul is the sublimation of the past for the sake of a better future. And it is the necessary preparation for the blessings of Rosh Hashanah, the promise of plenty and fulfillment in the year to come.