Cities of Refuge
Several months ago, as I usually do, I spent Shabbos afternoon on the sofa in our living room catching up on New Yorker magazines. I tip my hat to those of you who can keep up, reading the issues cover to cover, before the next week’s installment arrives.
One particular story had me glued and the end of the piece had a payoff: it quoted this week’s Parsha.
So, just as I experienced that Shabbos afternoon, you too will have to wait through my talk (hopefully not too long) to understand and appreciate the connection.
This true story was about a young graduate student at the University of Miami, Ohio who was driving on a rural road one perfect_summer_weather_afternoon when she ACCIDENTALLY struck and killed a young child. She had not been drinking or speeding.
Texting on cellphones had not been invented yet.
The New Yorker recounted the shock and horror and surreal events of that fateful day as Maryann Gray shared the details of her story with the article’s author.
Her father flew from New York to help his otherwise bright and likely capable 22-year-old daughter wade through the insurance and legal issues. And he came with her when she paid a condolence call to the family who lost their blonde little boy.
Twenty-six years later, now a retired UCLA assistant provost, Maryann found herself in good company (and I use the term loosely).
Seven miles from where she was living, an 86-year-old man mistakenly put his foot on the gas pedal and not the brake and plowed through a crowded Farmer’s Market in Santa Monica, killing 10 and injuring 63 people.
Never before sharing her personal story of what happened that June 1977 afternoon, Gray read about the tragic events at the market that day and felt compelled to speak out. She wrote a 400-word email to a radio producer. Within an hour she was asked to call into that evening’s broadcast of All Things Considered.
Friends and colleagues whom she’d known for decades reached out sympathetically and more importantly – she heard from DOZENS AND DOZENS of people who were JUST LIKE HER. And they thanked her over and over again for giving them a voice.
There’s no book in the self-help section of Barnes and Noble - or the library for that matter - for people who have unintentionally taken someone else’s life. And up until that 2003 NPR broadcast, there were no websites.
Moved by the feedback she received, Maryann registered a website called ACCIDENTAL IMPACTS and included a link to the radio story she contributed to, as well as links for reading recommendations – stories about PTSD and the like.
When Maryann, a reform Jew growing up in Scarsdale, read this week’s Torah portion she was overcome with gratitude.
Bamidbar, Chapter 35 is Parshat Masei. Pasuks 9 thru 12:
Hashem said to Moshe: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them “When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, designate some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee.”
The Ir Miklat – or City of Refuge – was a protective sub-society of sorts. It allowed a space for offenders to reside while awaiting trial without the threat of an avenger. If found not guilty, they were assured protection so long as they never left the city walls. It provided a safe haven for those paralyzed by their guilt to live in G-d’s sanctuary. Not to feel abandoned but rather entrenched in Hashem’s unconditional love. To have a built-in brotherhood. And there were six of these such places!
The Talmud in Makkos (9b) says the roads to these cities were supposed to be wide, well-marked and free from obstruction. They needed to be a place where an offender could get to quickly.
There were no Arei Mikla anywhere when Maryann Gray had her accident in 1977. And none registered on Google Earth for the scores of folks who contacted her after they listened to her interview on All Things Considered nearly three decades later. The bold move of exposing herself opened doors to a club whose reluctant members really need each other.
Yet THOUSANDS of years ago, Hashem had the sensibility to pre-arrange for a commune where Israelites who committed unintentional crimes could be brought together with others in the same situation.
When I first read about this the thought entered my mind that the Torah (no disrespect) is just like a smartphone – there’s an APP for everything. Recipes. Building codes. And a guide for what to do with people who accidentally take the life of another.
Having a religious designation for these cities likely helped these refugees. Not unlike when you travel far from home, and you see someone wearing a kippah. It made them feel connected. Not rejected, but instead – protected.
Of all the 613 mitzvot, I bet many would never guess that building these cities ranks among them. Keep in mind these were not luxurious resorts – more like minimum security prisons where the offenders are not completely escaping punishment. There’s still a very powerful suggestion that accidents have consequences.
Maryann Gray writes if she had been exiled to a city of refuge, she might not have (quote) “needed exile from myself.” In the New Yorker she said she was looking to live in a world with acceptance and opportunity.
Inclusion is something that we at Darchei Noam take seriously.
It’s not a political gesture.
It’s something we as Jews are COMMANDED to do.
We identified as a nation of slaves in Mitzrayim.
Standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai we were a people with a shared destiny.
We were all powerfully present. (that’s a nod to a D’var Torah Nisso gave a few years ago)
Everyone was valued.
Unfortunately, Arei Miklat are extinct -- but history didn’t clear itself out of marginalized groups. Dignity, respect, honor and acceptance can evade our encounters with people who might need to feel it the most. How do we make a safe space for them?
I recently received a notice from the New Yorker – my subscription expired.
I guess I should renew it.
Mazel Tov Huntleys and Donaths.