The Torah in Parashat Devarim (4:41) briefly tells of the designation of three cities as arei miklat – cities of refuge to protect inadvertent killers. Moshe set aside three arei miklat east of the Jordan River, in the region which Benei Yisrael had captured from the kingdoms of Sichon and Og, and which was settled by the tribes of Reuven and God and half the tribe of Menashe. The Torah refers to the geography of this region with the term “mizrecha shamesh” (“east, [the direction of the] sun”), and the Gemara (Makkot 10a) and Midrash (Devarim Rabba 2:30) find it significant that the Torah mentions the sun in conjunction with the arei miklat. The Gemara states, “The Almighty said to Moshe: Shine the sun on the [inadvertent] murderer.” These cities of refuge are said to “shine the sun” on one who accidentally kills by offering him safety and protection.
How might we explain the association drawn between sunlight and the arei miklat?
One approach (suggested by Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg in Yalkut Yehuda) is that the cities of refuge allowed the inadvertent killer to live normally, without having to hide. If not for the arei miklat, the killer would be forced to live in hiding to protect himself from the victim’s vengeful relatives. Thus, the cities of refuge quite literally “shine the sun” on the inadvertent killer, by allowing him to go about freely outdoors, without having to hide.
Additionally, however, it has been suggested that the Gemara here speaks of sunlight in the symbolic sense. The institution of arei miklat is referred to by Chazal as “galut” (“exile”), expressing the punitive aspect of this law, the need to punish somebody who failed to exercise proper caution, and whose negligence led to the loss of human life. Here, however, the Gemara seems to point to an additional element of arei miklat, what we might call the therapeutic, or rehabilitative, aspect. An inadvertent killer is likely to fall into depression and experience intolerable pangs of conscience. The Levite residents of the city of refuge bear the responsibility of “shining the sun” on the new arrival, of lifting his spirits and easing his emotional distress. While on the one hand he is punished for his negligence, at the same time, the accidental nature of his crime should elicit empathy, sensitivity and understanding. This, perhaps, is the meaning of the Gemara’s comment, “shine the sun on the murderer.” Even as he is punished, he deserves to be helped through encouragement and empathy. (See Rav Yehuda Zoldan’s article on this topic.)
This perspective on the arei miklat reminds us that many times, even those who deserve to be reprimanded and punished also deserve sensitivity and understanding. The fact that somebody acted wrongly does not necessarily negate the need to “shine the sun” upon him, to try to lift him out of the darkness into which he has fallen and offer encouragement and support. If the person truly regrets his wrongdoing and seeks a new beginning, we are to provide whatever “light” we can to lift his spirits and help him regain his confidence and peace of mind as he tries to overcome his mistakes and move forward.