Shoftim: Roads Teaching Mercy

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

Shalom from the muggy `burbs of Boston!

Our nation is currently engaged in debate about who was responsible for what in
the wake
of the recent hurricane. Fittingly enough, this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim,
is also
concerned with issues of justice, authority, civil society, and the
responsibility of
community leaders. Judges must be impartial, society must entrust its leaders
with the
difficult task of interpreting the law and deciding cases, and even the king is
not above the
law of the land.

In Chapter 20, we learn that warfare is to be conducted according to rules of
fairness and
moral seriousness- for example, fruit trees are not to be destroyed during the
siege of a
city, since they will provide food long after the war is over. “Cities of
refuge” are to be
established for those who commit accidental manslaughter, and local authorities
repent publicly if there are unsolved acts of violence near their boundaries.

We discussed the “cities of refuge” a few weeks ago,* but it’s a concept worth
revisiting in
both this time of introspection on the Jewish calendar and the current news from
the Gulf
Coast. The basic idea is that someone who commits accidental manslaughter must
given refuge in special marked cities, where he or she will be safe from the
avenger” of the victim’s family. The cities of refuge first appeared in the book
Bamidbar/ Numbers, but this week’s recapitulation adds a few new details:

“. . . you shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of your land,
which the Lord,
your God, is giving you to possess. Prepare the road for yourself and divide
into three
parts the boundary of your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you as an
and it will be for every killer to flee there. . . . ” (Devarim/ Deuteronomy

Our teacher Rashi explains that the details of “preparing the road” and dividing
the land
into three parts are to make it easier to find and flee to the nearest “city of
Preparing the road meant putting up road signs at intersections, pointing the
way to the
nearest city of refuge, and the land was to be divided equally so that the the
cities were
equidistant from each other. There should not be a greater distance from one
part of the
country to the nearest sanctuary than from another part of the country- that
wouldn’t be
fair to the accidental killer who happened to be in a remote village.

What I find so moving about Rashi’s explanation is the idea that we know in
advance that
people will make terrible mistakes, and we nevertheless treat these people with
and dignity in their seeking of sanctuary from the angry mob. The very idea of
the city of
refuge is to have society embrace an ideal of justice, which requires renouncing
and a commitment to careful distinctions of judgement. It is not justice to
treat murder
and manslaughter equally; therefore, the accidental killer is accorded the right
to safety,
which would be compromised if it were confusing or difficult to find the city of

To put it another way, signs at every intersection pointing the way to the “city
of refuge”
mean that every time one walked along the road there would be a reminder of the
ideals of fairness and renunciation of revenge. These values would be literally
built into the
walls of the community, through the placement of the cities equal distances from
other. Society would be founded – in the most literal sense- upon principles of
justice, and
the roads would teach concepts of mercy, which would then surely transform
throughout the wider community.

Roads teaching mercy? Cities built with justice in mind?

This is the Torah’s challenge: nothing less than the fundemental orientation of
individual hearts and communal structures towards fairness and mercy, with
sanctuary and
understanding (which does not mean total lack of consequences) for those who
fall short. Human imperfection does not overcome the possibility of human
dignity; this is
the deepest value of the city of refuge.


* This message will probably make more sense when compared with my earlier
of the cities of refuge:

PS- as usual, you can read the Torah and haftarah and various commentaries here:

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