Once the saintly R. Zusya of Anapoli was traveling from town to town to raise money for the redemption of captives. On the course of his journey, he came to an inn. The owner was not home, but the members of his household invited R. Zusya to stay. One of the features of the inn was a large bird cage where several exotic birds were kept. R. Zusya saw them flying against the walls of the cage, straining to be free. He thought for a moment. “I am journeying for the purpose of freeing captives and here I have captives in front of me and I am letting them remain caged.” Without a second thought, he opened the cage and let the birds take flight.

When the inn-keeper returned and saw that the bird cage was empty, he asked what had happened. When he was informed, he angrily approached R. Zusya and demanded an explanation of his behavior. After all, the birds had cost him a pretty penny. R. Zusya answered: “It is written: ‘His mercies are upon all His creations.’ Seeing their plight, my mercy was aroused to release them from their confinement.” The inn-keeper could not understand such an explanation and vented his rage upon R. Zusya.

Sometimes afterwards, R. Zusya chanced to help a poor wayfarer. When he looked closely at him, he recognized that he was the inn-keeper. After that event, his fortunes had taken a turn for the worst and he was reduced to begging. Apparently, G‑d withheld His mercies from a person who could not understand merciful conduct.

Parshas Maasei

This Torah reading contains the commandment to set aside Cities of Refuge for a person who killed a colleague unintentionally. Although in the world at large, one of the most common forms of punishment for committing a crime is imprisonment. This punishment is not, by contrast, to be found in the Torah, nor should the Cities of Refuge be looked upon in that vein.

Why do most societies choose imprisonment? When they consider a lawbreaker to be dangerous, they arrest him and isolate him from society, so that he will not cause the world any further harm. It’s true, his freedoms are deprived, but this is viewed as an unavoidable way of protecting the public interest.

The Torah never desires to sacrifice any individual, even one who has committed a crime. Indeed, the entire concept of punishment in the Torah should be seen, not as intending to cause harm to a transgressor, but to motivate and enable him to correct the sin he committed. Punishment by imprisonment is therefore out of the question, because the transgressor is deprived of his freedom to choose his path in life. Every single moment of a person’s life should be dedicated to serving G‑d in the fullest way possible. Since imprisonment prevents that, it is not countenanced by the Torah.

From the above, it is clear that when a person who kills a colleague accidentally is forced to flee to one of the Cities of Refuge, this is not punishment by imprisonment. Rather, living in a City of Refuge is punishment by exile. Torah Law requires that in that city he be provided with all his needs, both physical and spiritual. What is he lacking? Nothing, but everything, because he is separated from his native land and from those who love him. He lives, using all of his potentials, but in a different and more positive manner. In this way, he atones for his transgression.

Sin causes harm. Metaphorically, it can be equated with killing a person, for in a spiritual sense, with every sin, a person separates himself from his essential G‑dly core, the source of his vitality. Nevertheless, it is an “accidental murder,” because the person is unaware of how he is causing this separation. As our Sages say: “No man sins unless a spirit of folly enters him.” For if he was conscious of the spiritual separation caused by his deeds, he would never have thought of committing them.

How does he atone? By going to exile. In a spiritual sense, this refers to the Torah, as our Sages state: “The Torah affords refuge.” The Torah gives a person an opportunity to reorient himself and find an expression for all of his energies in a manner that aligns his spiritual core with G‑d’s intent. And in this way, one finds atonement.

Looking to the Horizon

The concept of cities of refuge features prominently with regard to our people’s redemption. Moses was commanded to have the Jews set aside nine cities of refuge: three in Eretz Yisrael proper, three, in Transjordan (which is also part of our Holy Land), and three, in the lands of the Keni, Kenizi, and Kadmoni, three nations to the south of Eretz Yisrael whose lands were not conquered in Biblical times.

Maimonides cites this commandment as a Biblical proof of the ultimate redemption. For “this command was never fulfilled and surely, God did not give this command in vain.” Hence, we can assume that it will be fulfilled in the era of Redemption.

But what purpose will these cities serve in that future era. As R. Yitzchak Luria, the holy Ari, asks: Then, God will “cause the spirit of impurity to depart from the earth,” and “nation will not lift up sword against nation.” If so, why will there be a need for cities of refuge at all, and in particular, more cities of refuge that existed previously?

This question can be answered based on a passage from the Talmud which relates how after Rabbi Yishmael inadvertently committed a sin, he recorded in his notebook, “When the Temple is rebuilt, I will bring a succulent sin offering.” Similarly, the cities of refuge in the Messianic age will serve as an asylum for those who killed inadvertently in the previous era.