Parashat Massei 5776

Rabbi René Pfertzel, 05 August 2016


On my induction day at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, we were shown an important place of the campus security system: the miklat (shelter). In the case of a bombing, or an air raid, we were to go straight into this miklat. This word comes from this week’s Torah portion, Massei. It is repeated no less than 10 times in the 34 verses of Numbers, Chapter 35. However, its meaning is different.

In Biblical times, tells our portion, six cities of refuge were created as sanctuary for people who had killed someone accidentally, unintentionally and without forethought. “These cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger (i.e. the next of kin), so that the manslayer may not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly” (Nb. 35:12). Their purpose was to avert feuds, and private justice outside the judiciary. The next verses make a clear-cut distinction between a murder committed on purpose and a death incurred unintentionally. In the former case, the death penalty is applied; in the latter, protection is offered before trial.

Today, in modern Israel, the signs “miklat” printed on walls indicate safe places where Israeli citizens can take refuge from intentional killers, people whose will is to destroy other human beings.

An Israeli friend of mine told me 20 years ago that was what was going on in Israel, and predicted it would eventually hit our European cities. She was right.

In the last 18 months, France has been struck by major terrorist attacks, Germany as well. Britain fears that this wave might reach London. Have we been wilfully blind? Have we been blind to the sufferings in the Middle East, blind to the endless list of attacks in cities in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan? Syria is in ruins; Afghanistan is barely recovering from years of war. Some say you cannot export war without expecting being hit back. Is it that simple? Are we the only ones responsible for the situation?

We are prone to beat our breast too rashly, and we tend to forget what our European legacy is to the world. We have put an end to an endless cycle of wars by building a community of peoples. We have brought to the world not only a law, but also a sense of justice based on human and universal values.

However, the only response to the current wave of violence seems to be more violence, more air strikes, as if we had been sucked into a downward spiral of violence.

I would like to offer another reading of the word “miklat“, not as a physical shelter, but a state of mind.

The Jewish people had a mission, to be a “light unto the nations”. Maybe it is time again to speak out, to promote our values embedded in Prophetic Judaism, to tell the world that endless violence is not the answer, that we can all live together on this tiny planet in mutual respect. Our blessing – which happened sometimes to be a curse – is to be a small minority. As such, we are always on the margins, observers of world affairs. We are also the repositories of an age-old tradition that advocates for balanced and respectful human relationships. This tradition has been our refuge for generations. Its humanistic values could be the foundation of a new legal order, a world where nobody needs to kill to be heard, a world where individual rights are respected. Israel’s mission is to be an ethical people. We take this very seriously.

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