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Teaching in Exile

Updated: Apr 26

Reflections on Torah Portion Mattot-Masei 2017

(edited from 2016)

This week’s Torah portion is a double portion. The reason we have double portions is so that during a Jewish leap year, when there are 13 months instead of 12, we can “unpack” the double portions so that each Shabbat in a leap year has its own Torah portion. This double portion ends the book of Numbers (Ba-Midbar – “in the desert” in Hebew).

Many of the themes in these two Torah portions have to do with final matters before the Israelites enter the Land of Canaan. One of these matters is the concept of the “cities of refuge” that will be established in the land. A person who has killed someone accidentally but negligently is still subject to the family of the deceased sending out a “blood avenger” (go’el ha-dahm). The perpetrator can flee to a city of refuge and have his case adjudicated. If the killing were deemed completely accidental, the person is free to go. If it turns out that the person committed willful murder, the court hands him over to the blood avenger, who slays the perpetrator. If the killing was negligent, but not intentional, the person can stay safely in the city of refuge until the current High Priest dies. At that time, the Blood Avenger is relieved of his duty to avenge the blood of his kinfolk, and the perpetrator can leave the city safely.

This law clearly seems to prevent something rampant in pre-modern times, and still in force in many places today: the vendetta. If a person from one tribe, group, gang, mob, race, religion, nation etc., kills a person from another group, the offended group feels it has the right and duty to kill any member of the group of the perpetrator. Destructive feuds follow. This law takes us out of the primitive world of blood vengeance and limits the avenger to only the perpetrator, and introduced the intervention of a court to adjudicate the case. The avenger is, of course, an executioner, but only of someone who has committed intentional murder. Accidental killings are excused and negligent homicides are handled with the city of refuge.

The Talmud takes this wise and fairly straightforward law into unforeseen territory. The Bible says in Deuteronomy 4:42, where the matter is reviewed, that that person guilty of negligent homicide can flee to a city of refuge “and live”. The Talmudic rabbis ask what it means “to live.” Obviously, he goes there to live and not to die; that is the purpose of the law. “To live” must mean something else. The rabbis decide (as recorded in Tractate Makkot 10a) that a person cannot live without the study of Torah, so if a person is exiled to the city of refuge, his teacher must go with him. And where the teacher goes, the whole yeshivah goes.

This reading of the text is, of course, contested, and there is no recorded case of a rabbi and the yeshivah following a negligent killer into the exile of a city of refuge. The Talmud is probably referring to something deeper. What is the deeper thing here? Something that every real parent, teacher, healer, therapist, life coach, mentor, true friend, etc. knows: you can only guide another person if you are willing to go into the exile experienced by the person for whom you are caring.

The empathy and insight required for true guidance requires that the person who assumes the role of guide can somehow peer into the soul of the suffering one and not be defended from what one sees there.

The true witness to the suffering of another will not be untouched. Perhaps this is the mark of a healing presence, whether family, friend or counselor: the willingness to suffer some of the exile of the one in pain. The rabbi of the man who kills negligently must go into exile with him, we are taught, as well as the entire yeshivah. I try to imagine how the curriculum changes, as the students now are mostly those guilty of negligent homicide.

I mean all of us. Relationships are often killed, negligently, by a thousand cuts. We often kill ourselves with relentless negative inner voices, cutting away at our sense of self. We need to flee to the city of refuge, a state of mind in which we – admit that we are sometimes slowly and negligently killing relationships, killing ourselves. In that exile in the city of refuge, we can confront that destructive negligence and seek the teaching that will release us.

Imagine that we are all in exile, all seeking the city of refuge, all seeking the teaching that will help us stop destroying that which we treasure.

Off the top of my head, here are two little teachings. We all live with resentment and regret. You are not human if you have not been hurt or regret hurting yourself or others. But we ought not be weighted down into the past. Each day is a day that opens on to a new horizon, a new canvas for self creation. Voices of resentment and regret must be addressed (they never go away), but they ought not dominate our inner dialogue. Our inner life should be guided toward openness, hope and joy.

A second teaching: understand irony. More on that later.

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