Chapter 33

1 These are the journeys: The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that these forty-two journeys are also the forty-two spiritual journeys we make throughout our life. We begin from birth, and the nation’s exodus from Egypt is both its own birth as a nation and an allegory for every individual birth, the liberation of the fetus from the confines of the womb into the freedom of the outside world where it can develop and become independent. The final journey is to the spiritual Promised Land, the afterlife that awaits us after death.

Although some of the intervening journeys in the Israelite’s trek through the desert were accompanied by setbacks, in their spiritual origin and in the way they are meant to be reflected in our lives they are all holy and positive. If we choose properly between good and evil, we will live out these phases of life in the way God intended; if, like the generation of the desert, we make some wrong choices, they will have to be expressed as setbacks.1

Even though we can always transform the setbacks we have suffered in our lives into positive, growth experiences, it is still better not to have to fall back on this. With regard to our future journeys, let us try to always choose to live them out in positive, holy ways.2

Chapter 34

2 This is the land which shall fall to you as an inheritance: Allegorically, the Land of Israel represents the physical world in general; the fact that we are obligated to perform certain commandments only within its borders alludes to the fact that we can only perform God’s commandments and elevate material reality while our souls are in this world, that is, during our physical lifetime. This opportunity does not exist before the soul descends into the body and after it leaves it, even though the soul is alive before birth and lives on after death.

By delineating the boundaries of the Land of Israel—allegorically, demarcating the sphere within which we can perform God’s commandments and elevate the material world—the Torah underscores the value we should attach to this opportunity, which we are granted only during our lives on earth.

Relative to the beatific existence the soul enjoys in its celestial abode before birth, the difficult and challenging life it must lead in this world seems indeed to be a “fall” from a former height. But by utilizing all our powers to capitalize on the unique opportunity that is ours only in this world, we not only help God achieve His purpose in creation and fulfill the purpose of our existence, but also vastly enhance our ability to absorb the Divine revelations that await us in the afterlife.3

Chapter 35

11 You shall designate…cities of refuge: Allegorically, the Torah itself is the “city of refuge,” for when we are immersed in its study and internalize the Divine consciousness it gives us, we are protected from the machinations of the evil inclination.4 Furthermore, Torah study also protects us from the ill effects of wrongdoing, because it purifies us, inspiring us to regret our past failings and make amends for them. And when we repent properly, our sins are transformed into merits.

This is true even if we are guilty of intentional sins, just as the cities of refuge also provided asylum for intentional murderers (at least until their case could be brought to court).5

The roads leading to the cities of refuge had to be kept wide and clear, so that anyone who needed to use them could do so easily. There also had to be signs posted at every crossroads, so the way to the city of refuge would be clearly marked.6

Similarly, God keeps the way to the Torah and its lifestyle open, accessible, and clear for all of us. We all have free choice, but God also shows us the way and in many ways helps us find the right direction in life.

In order to hear God’s voice more clearly, however, we should help others find the right direction in their lives. We should all consider ourselves “signposts,” whose job it is to point others in the direction of life and goodness. When God sees that we are showing others the way, He will show us our way more clearly. We therefore need not be afraid of standing at “crossroads,” at places where there is an opportunity to take a wrong turn.

Even if we are not sure that anyone is looking at what we are doing, at the “sign” we are posting at this “crossroad,” the fact that we are doing our part in disseminating Divine consciousness throughout reality will earn us God’s increased guidance in our own lives.

Ideally, though, we should try not to just be inanimate “signposts,” helping only those who come to us in search of the right way; we should be living signposts, reaching out to our fellows and, if necessary, awakening them to the fact that there is such a thing as a holy, Divine life that they should pursue. Again, the results of our efforts in this regard might not always be immediately evident, but they will be eventually, for the effects of doing good are cumulative and eternal.7

Inner Dimensions

[11] Cities of Refuge: The Torah is called a “city of refuge” for two reasons: In order for a city to be halachically considered a city, it must have at least ten people who do nothing all day other than learn Torah.8 Mystically, this alludes to the ten sefirot of Atzilut, the level of reality in which there is no consciousness of anything other than God’s existence. The ten sefirot are the spiritual origin of our ten intellectual, emotional, and behavioral faculties.

The Hebrew word for “refuge” (miklat) actually means “absorption.” This alludes to the fact that we must learn the Torah in such a way that its message is absorbed within us, refining and edifying us.

Thus, the Torah acts as a “city of refuge” when we immerse ourselves in it fully, with all ten powers of our soul, and internalize its message.9

A murderer who killed a person shall flee there: Allegorically, any sin is an act of murder, since by sinning we prevent, to a certain extent, Divine life-force from entering ourselves and reality at large. By cutting the world off from its true lifeblood, we are “killing” it. This is why the penalty of the primordial, archetypal sin—eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge—was death.10

24-25 The congregation shall judge between the assailant and the blood avenger…the congregation shall protect the murderer: From the juxtaposition of these two imperatives—to judge and to rescue—the sages derive the law that when a high court initially votes in a criminal case unanimously to indict the accused, he is immediately acquitted. Only when there are some judges who initially vote in his favor can the court proceed to debate the issue and, if there remains a majority against him, sentence him to death.11

The reason for this is that the purpose of all punishments—even the death penalty—is to achieve atonement for the guilty person’s crime, cleansing him of his sin and thereby allowing him to proceed with his life. (When the punishment is not death, his life continues in this life; when it is death, his “life” continues in the afterlife.) In order for this to work, however, the guilty person must repent and confess his sin. In other words, his inner desire to do good must surface, so that it can serve as a seed from which his new direction in life can grow.

If at least some of the judges can see a reason to judge the defendant favorably, it means that his inner core of goodness is at least slightly apparent and active. Therefore, the court can judge such a person. Even if they eventually sentence him, their arguments in his favor, emphasizing his virtue and innocence, will draw out his inner goodness and prompt him to repent and confess. This will allow the sentence to atone for his sin and permit him to progress to the next stage of his existence.

But when not even a single member of the high court— the seventy-one wisest, most discerning people in the generation— can see any redeeming exoneration in him, it means that his inner core of goodness has receded so deeply within his outer shell of misbehavior that it is totally submerged, and there is no hope that this court can arouse it and thereby accomplish the defendant’s atonement by their sentence.

From this law we therefore see how insistent the Torah is that there is an inner, indestructible goodness within every person: even when the highest, most distinguished court of the land immediately and unanimously agrees that a person is absolutely culpable, the Torah says that this is impossible. No one is wholly bad, and if we cannot see this truth it is because our vision is faulty. On the contrary, our job is to see the good in everyone, to draw out that good, and to thereby help the person out of his present depravity and back onto the path of goodness and life.12

He shall remain there until the high priest…dies: On the ladder of morality, the inadvertent killer is on the lowest rung. True, he is not a deliberate criminal, but even so, his hands are stained with the blood of another human being. The only criminal than can be considered lower than him is the deliberate murderer. But since the murderer is liable to the death penalty, he is considered dead already and thus not counted. This leaves the inadvertent killer as the lowest element of society, his unique status attested to by the fact that of all those guilty of transgressing the Torah’s prohibitions, only he suffers the punishment of forced exile.

In contrast, the high priest is the most exalted personality in the nation, the highest example of holiness and purity to which anyone can aspire.

Yet the Torah says here that the inadvertent killer is linked specifically to the high priest: he must remain in exile as long as the high priest is alive, and the high priest must make it his business to pray that no one in his nation become an inadvertent killer. We see here that the Torah has effectively adopted the attitude of the first high priest, Aaron—who loved all creatures and drew them to the Torah—and institutionalized it as a integral aspect of the high priesthood.

This fact teaches us a great lesson in brotherly love and Jewish unity: no matter what heights we have reached on the ladder of spiritual or social status, we must remain concerned with all elements of society, even the lowest. And even if we think we exist on the lower echelons of humanity, we must remember that we are still connected with those on the highest echelons, for we are all one people.13