Spiritual cities of refuge

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Vaetchanan

Like the Jewish people’s ongoing journey towards the promised land, life — soul in body — is all about traveling. Traveling, here, means progressing as a person.

There are three (general) internal voices which create obstacles to change — blockage to living a fulfilling journey on Earth. The first says, “I don’t understand why (or what) I need to change. Nobody’s perfect. But I’m doing fine, thanks.” 

The next obstacle says, “I understand the need, but just don’t want to change. (I wish I would have the desire.)”

The last, and most difficult, resistance from within claims, “I understand the need, and I really want to change — but I don’t believe I can. It’s too difficult to undo years of conditioning.”

The pillars of life

To counteract these barriers, we have three spiritual “pillars” that uphold the world — including our inner world — provided at the beginning (1:2) of Ethics of our Fathers, which we read throughout these summer months. Each pillar has a special connection to one of these three obstacles:

Regular Torah study helps explain how and why we should change. Prayer, the service of the heart, when done properly helps to awaken the desire to change. Deeds of kindness stimulate confidence: When you make an effort to give to others, you get an entirely different level of energy to propel inner change. (So, even if we naturally lack it, G-d provides that extra energy.)

The foundation

These three pillars have a foundation. And without a foundation, a building is shaky and may collapse. That internal foundation, the force beneath the pillars, is simcha (happiness).

(The Jewish concept of simcha is not simply being in a good mood, visibly upbeat and jovial. It is the offshoot of deeper belief and trust that generates the feeling of being connected; the sense that G-d loves you regardless of any faults and assists you each second in your journey — you are not bound to your own estimated abilities.)

Only with this foundation intact can we succeed in breaking these three blockades toward our destination — understanding that we need to change, we want to and that we indeed can. Conversely, remove the underlying emotion of happiness and a person is in trouble, prisoner to doubt and destructive reasoning.

To be sure, inner resources — traits like willpower, focus, persistence, self-confidence — can take someone far. But eventually, the demands become overwhelming, and those three voices weigh down the mind, block progress and lead to periods of unhealthy sadness, sluggishness and disillusionment. 

In other words, life’s challenges are indeed great. But the ingredient of happiness switches one’s perspective away from the struggle toward all the power for potential good. In this sense, simcha, although not itself a mitzvah (stated as a Torah instruction), infuses all mitzvahs with vigor while sadness propels feelings of disconnection. 

And while we cannot always control how we feel, we can find ways to improve our effort and attitude. More importantly, we can create the infrastructure — key actions at certain times — that dispels emotional darkness and invite happiness to enter. 

Cities of refuge

With this in mind, let’s turn to examine an important application of one of the mitzvahs in this week’s Torah portion: Moses designates three more cities of refuge on the eastern side of the Jordan River. These nine cities in total, as was taught previously, provided refuge for an individual who inadvertently killed another.

The Jewish court had the responsibility to ensure the accessibility of these cities by improving the roads leading to the places of refuge and by constructing signs with the words miklat, miklat (“refuge, refuge”) to clearly show the way.

These cities served two purposes. The first is obvious: to provide protection for the person fleeing in case the victim’s relatives sought revenge. The second is a form of rehabilitation, the ability to reflect, away from the previous environment, within the pristine air of the Holy Land. The commentaries ask why, if the act was accidental, is any healing process even necessary. The simple answer is that tragic damage nevertheless occurred, which demands remorse. The more profound answer is that since everything happens for a reason, even someone’s unintentional mistakes signal something unaligned within that person’s soul that requires introspection to correct.

The spiritual counterpart

Every mitzvah contains a literal instruction, but also a spiritual equivalent — its root and broader application. Since this mitzvah can be fulfilled only during Temple times (and additional cities will be added only in the future, “When G-d will expand your borders…” Deuteronomy 19:8-9), we can move to explore the deeper teaching of establishing cities of refuge. 

Before discussing what exactly cities or refuge represents for us, let’s first understand an idea discussed in the esoteric Jewish texts that equate all transgressions to a death. Literal killing is physically “spilling blood”; sin is spilling spiritual vitality. Simply put, through a negative immoral act, the person transfers energy from the realm of holiness — the soul’s precious reservoir — to the impure forces in the world. Healing then becomes repairing that wound — strengthening the moral weak spot — and regaining the lost life-force through energized remorse and resolve. In this sense, every action, no matter how small it may seem, has consequences for the person’s soul and the world at large.

But amid the many daily demands, it is hard to reflect on our mistakes and goals with any peace of mind. Therefore, we need to set up spiritual “cities of refuge” which are previously set stopping points during our day, defined places and activities where we seek spiritual protection and tranquility.

Focused Torah study is one type of refuge: If a person immerses in learning something new, even for a short period, the Torah will protect him or her from the adverse outcomes of unwanted deeds. As the Talmud declares, “The words of Torah protect (Tractate Makkot 10a).” And there are other metaphorical sanctuaries, as mentioned above, wherein embracing the three pillars of life undoes mental obstacles and creates momentum for growth.

The personal venue of refuge is also important: creating a quiet place for growth to occur. But such a haven is of little value without clear cues. And just as the physical cities of refuge, our leaders have the responsibility to post visible signs — active reminders — at the crossroads of life to direct people to those spaces of spiritual refuge.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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