Friday, July 25, 2014

Cities of Refuge and Sources for Hope: Parashat Massei

Parashat Masei Sermon
Delivered at Rockland Synagogue
July 25, 2014/ 27 Tammuz 5774

I don’t know about all of you, but the past two weeks have been challenging my faith -- faith in humanity, faith in justice, faith in sanity, faith in the future of our homeland, faith in a safe and fulfilling future for our next generation of Jews.  Most of you, I am sure, have been keeping up with the news coming out of Israel and the Palestinian territories, and the ripple effects for Diaspora Jewry around the world -- it’s Shabbat, so I won’t rehash events that define the world that lay outside of our Shabbat bubble. But I came here to talk to you about faith and doubt, and this week’s portion struck a very resonant chord with me on that topic, in particular, faith in the ability to heal and rebuild after death and tragedy.

Our portion begins with a retelling of the journeys of the Israelites in the desert.  After years of wandering in wilderness, Moses rightly sees the value in recalling how far the Israelites have come in their serpentine journey.  Though it was not clear at the outset, this wandering had a purpose, and each stop had its value worth remembering on the border of the promised land.  

Interestingly enough, before the people Israel enters the Land of Israel, they need to do some prep work -- they need to set up “arei miklat,” cities of refuge.  Setting up cities of refuge before establishing a commonwealth reminds me of the midrash that God created teshuva before the Divine Presence created the world.  Without the ability to repent, return, and forgive, the enterprise of human life cannot exist. Without cities of refuge, you cannot create a just and functional society.

In this week’s portion, parashat Massei, we learn about how these cities function in Numbers chapter 35:

9. The Lord spoke to Moses saying:
ט. וַיְדַבֵּר יְהֹוָה אֶל משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר:
10. Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan to the land of Canaan,
י. דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן:
11. you shall designate cities for yourselves; they shall be cities of refuge for you, and a murderer who killed a person unintentionally shall flee there.
יא. וְהִקְרִיתֶם לָכֶם עָרִים עָרֵי מִקְלָט תִּהְיֶינָה לָכֶם וְנָס שָׁמָּה רֹצֵחַ מַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ בִּשְׁגָגָה:
12. These cities shall serve you as a refuge from an avenger, so that the murderer shall not die until he stands in judgment before the congregation.
יב. וְהָיוּ לָכֶם הֶעָרִים לְמִקְלָט מִגֹּאֵל וְלֹא יָמוּת הָרֹצֵחַ עַד עָמְדוֹ לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה לַמִּשְׁפָּט:
13. The cities that you provide shall serve as six cities of refuge for you.
יג. וְהֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר תִּתֵּנוּ שֵׁשׁ עָרֵי מִקְלָט תִּהְיֶינָה לָכֶם:
14. You shall provide the three cities in trans Jordan and the three cities in the land of Canaan; they shall be cities of refuge.
יד. אֵת | שְׁלשׁ הֶעָרִים תִּתְּנוּ מֵעֵבֶר לַיַּרְדֵּן וְאֵת שְׁלשׁ הֶעָרִים תִּתְּנוּ בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן עָרֵי מִקְלָט תִּהְיֶינָה:
15. These six cities shall be a refuge for the children of Israel and for the proselyte and resident among them, so that anyone who unintentionally kills a person can flee there.
טו. לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלַגֵּר וְלַתּוֹשָׁב בְּתוֹכָם תִּהְיֶינָה שֵׁשׁ הֶעָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לְמִקְלָט לָנוּס שָׁמָּה כָּל מַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ בִּשְׁגָגָה:

God understands, and Moses communicates to the people Israel, that human beings will kill each other.  Living in Canaan doesn’t make sin go away.  Some will kill others intentionally, and others with kill their fellow human beings by mistake.  This is part of the project we call human life. Sometimes we kill others out of anger, out of fear, or sometimes we really don’t intend another harm, but in the exercise of power, others fall victim.  We learn in the Torah that God does not believe that those individuals deserve to die, and require protection from the blood avenger (the closest of kin charged with killing the murderer of their family member.)  We also learn, that life cannot go on as normal after one person has killed another.  There needs to be distance between the perpetrator the the relatives of the victim, and life must be changed radically after such a dramatic act.  Thus, the perpetrator must flee to the city of refuge for protection, alone, and build a new life in one of these six cities.

The cities of refuge both acknowledge a wrong while protecting a person who does not deserve to be killed.  It acknowledges an ethical gray area, and attempts to create space for someone who falls into that area that cannot be confined to black and white categories of good and evil.  It allows the families of the victims some sense of justice while putting a stop to the process of revenge.  I think that cities of refuge provide something different than forgiveness, but I think the two ideas are linked because they both provide us the ability to start anew after someone devastates us unintentionally:

The philosopher Hannah Arendt talks about the necessary relationship between human action and the process of forgiveness:  Human action, she writes, is defined by two features: (a) it cannot be reversed, and (b) its effects cannot be predicted. Even the deed committed with the best possible intentions cannot be undone, and its consequences cannot be fully anticipated. Therefore, undoubtedly, our actions cause anguish for the people in our lives. If one is fully aware  of the capacity she possesses to hurt others, it is easy to see how she could live a life paralyzed by fear. She must wonder how she can possibly continue to live an active, meaningful, authentic life. But, according to Arendt, there is hope – there are two essential pathways that allow us to live fulfilling, positive, influential lives: forgiveness and the ability to make promises.

The multiple and unpredictable consequences of our actions can lead to an endless chain of response and revenge. When someone hurts us, we can react in kind, and let the situation get out of control. The situation can become something like a game of pinball – every time the ball is struck, it picks up speed, power, and its course becomes increasingly unruly. When someone does us wrong, we have the choice to strike back, or to stop the process when we have the most control over it. Arendt posits that “Forgiveness is thus the opposite of vengeance.” Vengeance extends the consequences of transgression by automatically reacting to it, in a sometimes unending sequence of actions and reactions that bind all involved after the initial offense.”

Therefore, in order to act in any way, we need to live in a world where forgiveness is possible. As Roxanne Euben, professor of political science at Wellesley College puts it, “Forgiveness is that release that human beings grant one another from the transgressions they have committed against one another unknowingly, but without ever succumbing to the temptation to forget.” Arendt explains that forgiveness, “contains within it the genuine possibility of freeing both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven, and thus beginning anew.”

One may believe that I am speaking in a not-so-veiled way about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I am, but only in a very limited way.  I don’t believe that cities of refuge are the answer, because at this point, too many people would need to be in one.  And I don’t really believe that we can all just forgive each other and live in peace.  I believe that anyone who asserts that this conflict is simple and has an easy, straightforward solution is really not someone worth having a conversation with.  But there needs to be some kind of hope in the ability for something else.   A method for accepting that we hurt each other with varying levels of intention -- that something happened, but we’re willing to begin something new.  I don’t know how to get there, and I know its not easy, it may not even be possible.  But part of the process of living a life of faith is believing in the validity of that which we do not see or have never seen before.  We do not sing, “those who sow in tears will reap in joy,” because that is how the world works, but because we entreat God to make it so.  Faith is the way to live through the agony of being hurt and hurting others, and believing that there can be something other than pain.

Ken Yehi Ratzon
May it be God’s will