In our Sidra we read of the cities of refuge, to which a man who had killed accidentally could flee, find sanctuary and atone. The month of Elul, in which this Sidra is always read, 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 man can turn from the shortcomings of his past and dedicate himself to a new and sanctified future. The 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?

1. The Judges and the Refuge

The month of Elul, in a well-known Chassidic comparison, is like a city of refuge.

The Sifri1 interprets the opening verse of our Sidra, “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 term “these are the cities of refuge” to indicate that they were to be provided only within Israel.

Nonetheless, the Sifri says2 that someone who committed accidental homicide outside the land of Israel and who 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 the 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 atoning3 exile—atonement in the sense of a remorse which effaces4 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 the land of Israel’s borders—only the agents of the law, not its refuge.

2. Past and Future

There are two phases in teshuvah, or repentance. There is remorse over what has been done, and commitment to act differently in the future.5 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 why refuge was found only in 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 Pirkei Avot,6 “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.”7 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.

The Mitteler Rebbe (the second Chabad Rebbe) was once giving private audiences, when he interrupted 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 explained 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.8

It was this principle that lay behind G‑d’s command to Moses when the Israelites had made the golden calf: “Go, get thee down, for thy people have dealt corruptly.”9 For at that moment, Moses was inhabiting the spiritual heights of Mt. Sinai, neither eating nor drinking, divorced from the world. The Israelites were degraded through their sin. But by saying “thy people” G‑d created a bond between Moses and the people, on the basis of which Moses was able to plead on their behalf.

3. The Refuge and the Sin

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 trans-Jordan, where “manslaughter was common.’’10 And, in the Time to Come “the L-rd your G‑d will enlarge your borders”11 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 trans-Jordan to the Holy Land, and even in the Time to Come. And this is true spiritually as well as geographically. At every stage of a man’s religious life there is the possibility of some shortcoming for which there must be refuge and atonement. Even if he 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 he could have achieved.12 And if not, he must repent, and strive towards a more fulfilled future. Businessman and scholar, he who has lived in the world and he 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 means for us, in 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 year13), 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 burial 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.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. II pp. 380-384)