In the original Star Wars movie, Obi Wan Kanobi takes Luke Skywalker to Mos Eisley and warns him before they get there – you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy, we must be cautious. As the viewer, we don’t know what to expect other than Obi Wan’s words. I always found it funny that in this place of scum and villainy we meet Hans Solo and Chewbacca who will go on to become heroes of the trilogy. I guess you never know who you’re going to meet in different places.
In this week’s Torah portion we get introduced to the Cities of Refuge. Another place that at first glance may seem like a location that would be associated with scum and villainy. But when we read further, we discover that the Cities of Refuge are actually supposed to be a haven where a man-slaughterer might flee.
God instructs Moses to set up 3 Cities of Refuge on the other side of the Jordan and 3 Cities of Refuge in the land of Canaan. The intention is that if a person kills someone accidentally they then have the opportunity to flee to one of the Cities of Refuge before the family of the murdered person can pursue them and exact revenge.
In this way, at the first glance, the Cities of Refuge appear as a haven for man-slaughterers to flee to so that they can then allow for a judicial process to ascertain their level of guilt. But on a secondary level, the City of Refuge also may be considered to provide some form of protection for the family of the murdered person. They may feel compelled, in the heat of the moment, to go after the person who accidentally killed their loved one and exact revenge. The Torah even refers to them as the “blood avengers”.
But, do they really want to kill a person in cold blood? Do they want to fulfill the edict of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Rather, the City of Refuge also allows for their anger to cool somewhat, for them to also wait for the judicial process to decide on the guilt, or otherwise, of the person who accidentally killed their loved one.
The Cities of Refuge are protection for the man-slaughterer, but they are also protection against seeking revenge. And, the one thing that the Torah never goes into is to talk about what happens after the family of the murdered person exacts their revenge. Do the family of the person they have killed now come seeking them out? And do we enter into this cycle of revenge, potentially never ending.