Delivered at St. Albans Masorti Synagogue, 5777
A few years ago, I completed the chaplaincy requirement of rabbinical school, called CPE, which involved 500 hours of work as a hospital chaplain over the course of ten weeks. Understandably, this is a very intense endeavor. To sit, all day, with those who are suffering or dying, to comfort their loved ones, to try and answer their theological troubles - obviously this can be a lot to take in, day in and day out. And so, over the course of those ten weeks, I found myself developing a pattern: after a particularly difficult visit I would find a spot where I could be by myself for a little bit. For a few weeks, it was the chapel where the Muslim community held daily prayers. For a few weeks, it was a bridge between two floors where I could sit next to the windows. For a few weeks, it was a particular table in the corner of the cafeteria.
I found, through these places and moments, a refuge. And I think we all work to find that sometimes. In times of trouble and distress, we seek sanctuary in somewhere, someone, or something that we believe can offer us a respite from the ills that plague us. During CPE it was the nooks and crannies of a hospital that employs 65,000 people. During Mikayla’s pregnancy, when she was having complications and in the A&E nearly every week, we made to our own little ritual — after each hospital stay we would go down to Gray’s Papaya on 72nd and Broadway and get a quart of papaya juice. For us - that routine became a refuge.
During my first few years in rabbinical school, when I was under such extreme stress and working so hard to stay on top of the material - I found refuge in an even stranger place: a particular landing, in a particular stairwell - one that served only as an emergency exit so I could be assured of my solitude. I spend countless hours sitting on the dirty floor of that stairwell, next to a tiny window, reading, writing, and enjoying a temporary refrain from the anxiety of the school day.
We all have our refuges. In times of stress, in the midst of illness - there’s somewhere you go that you can always count on to provide a bit of solace. For many of us, religion can often be that refuge too. Not just the building, although we do call it a ‘sanctuary’ - but faith itself can provide a welcome change from the pressures of the secular world. We can find, in a life lived in consonance with the principles of religion, a certain solace that can mean, for many, a sort of salvation.
Yet, I think that there’s an element of this week’s sedra that can help us better understand how and when we find refuge, in religion and in the rest of our lives. We read this morning about the aré miklat - the cities of refuge. These six cities, part of the 48 allocated to the Levites in place of any ancestral claim to land, served a very specific purpose to our ancient ancestors.
If, God-forbid, you were to accidentally be responsible for someone’s death - what we today would refer to as manslaughter - you were still, according to the cultural values of the time, responsible for their blood. A relative of the victim would have not only the option, but actually the expectation, of restoring the balance of blood guilt by killing you. Thus there were often vicious cycles of blood guilt, vengeance after vengeance.
The Torah clearly has its reservations with this aspect of the culture around it, and so the protection is put in place that there will be six cities to which someone who has accidentally killed another can flee to. It’s rather like the ‘home base’ in a child’s game of tag - as long as the killer reached the city limits before the victim’s blood avenger found them, then they were safe and could not be harmed.
Once they reached the city, they would be brought to trial. If they were indeed found guilty of manslaughter, that is, if the victim’s death was ruled an accident - then the killer was permitted to stay in the city of refuge - protecting them from the relative keen on vengeance.
Yet, here’s the thing - that sanctuary was temporary. All of those who lived in the cities of refuge because they had killed accidentally were automatically absolved when the kohen gadol - the high priest in Jerusalem died. Then everything was returned to how it began - no more blood guilt, no more vengeance… but also no more sanctuary.
The truth is, those things in which we find refuge from the world around us are inherently temporary. If we cling to them, we make them into an enclave within which we aim to hide ourselves. There are times to hide - there are times in which the iniquities of life require us to step back and seek solace and sanctuary above all else. Yet, those times must have an expiration date.
The Talmud imagines that the high priest’s mother would knit clothes for the residents of the cities of refuge. We can just as easily imagine the mothers of those convicted of manslaughter bringing the high priest gifts of fruit and cake. They didn’t want him to think they were praying for him to die - they didn’t want the sanctuary to disappear. Even though the blood guilt was absolved with the high priest’s death and technically those convicted were “free,” it still ushered in a time of change, unrest, and unsurely for those who had come to rely on the sanctuary and their loved ones. That, we might say, is the danger of sanctuary - we become so attached to the things that make up our own refuges that we lose track of what we’re hiding from and when those dangers have dissolved.
A synagogue building and the community that inhabits it, even faith itself, can be a wonderful refuge from the world outside these walls. For many of us, it has been one - but it too must not become stagnant. We must always find new ways to find sanctuary within this sanctuary. We change, our community changes, and the things that provide us calm and comfort must change too.
During this past year at JTS, in the middle of all the stress of interviews, I began to get really overwhelmed. In a moment of brilliant inspiration, I remembered the staircase where years before I had found such comfort. I climbed up the steps, found the sunny landing and the little window, sat down in just the same way - resting my head here, folding my legs like this - and I waited… and waited… and nothing happened.
Whatever had made that a refuge for me years before no longer did. Papaya juice never will taste quite as thirst-quenching as when it came on the back of emergency room visits, and those spaces in hospital in which I worked might now go unoccupied or might be the refuges of others. So I, and you, and our ancient accidental killer - all have to go out and find somewhere new to seek sanctuary.
By all means - find your own city of refuge; it is an important thing to know that you have, but perhaps an even more important thing to know when it is time to move on from the walls of that sanctuary to find another, to change as our circumstances and ourselves change.
My prayer for us is that we all can find sanctuaries in our lives - things that give us respite during difficult times — but that we learn to see those things as transient. In doing so we can appreciate them better and we can grow, able to leave our sanctuaries absolved of our sufferings, free to move on into the world around us.