Yom Sheini, 17 AdarI 5781
Monday, 1 March 2021
Parashat Mass'ei 2014

Parashat Mass'ei
Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi
25th July 2014

There is one word from this week’s Sidra which is all too familiar to Israelis at the moment. That word is ‘Miklat’, the modern Hebrew word for ‘shelter.’ Our Sidra talks about ‘arei miklat’, cities of shelter, or, as it is more often translated, cities of refuge. They were places where a man could flee if he committed manslaughter – that is, he killed someone by accident with no intention to do so, for example by throwing a stone without seeing the victim. As so often in modern Hebrew, words are taken from the Torah and adapted to a modern context. In this case, they refer to a place of safety, where someone can flee if their life is in danger.

The cities of refuge were designed to end a cycle of violence. Before their institution, the relatives of a person who was slain could exact revenge on the killer, whether or not he had intended to kill. The cities of refuge provided a place where he could be safe. Just as in English law, he was not free of guilt. He had to remain in the city of refuge until the High Priest died, and if they left the city before then, the relatives of the deceased would be entitled to avenge the killing. The enormity of taking a life was recognised, but if it was not intended, then the guilt was of a different degree and the killer did not forfeit his life.

In the current situation in Israel and Gaza, we seem to have entered into a cycle of violence with no foreseeable end.·Missiles from Gaza rain down on Israeli towns and cities and Israel attempts to prevent this by targeting missile sites and command centres.· Palestinians are killed as a result, and anger and frustration build up so that another round of shelling starts.

Shelters are essential to save lives but they do not solve the long term problem. For that, it is necessary to break the cycle. A person who had committed manslaughter had to stay in the city of refuge until the High Priest died. The period was unpredictable – it may have been weeks, months or years - but however short the period, the death of the High Priest would have marked a shift in society and a time of communal mourning. It would have given the bereaved family time to reflect, to realise that murder was not intended, to overcome their anger and turn away from their desire for vengeance and perhaps, even to forgive.

Such a period of reflection is desperately needed in Israel and Gaza. Both sides need time to come to terms with their own suffering and recognise the suffering of the other. It is not clear how that will come about. It will not be easy, for attempts have been made before. But as we witness scenes of violence, death and mourning, let us pray that both sides will come to realise that the cycle must be broken. Then they will no longer have to rely on themiklat, the bomb shelter, but on another sort of shelter, as our ancient prayer says: ‘Ufros aleynu sukkat shelomecha - spread over us your Succah of peace’.