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The Cities of the Leviim and the Cities of Refuge

Rav Michael Hattin



            With the lengthy reading of the double portion of Matot-Masei, the Book of Bemidbar is completed.  Poised to enter the land, encamped just east of the River Jordan at the Plains of Moav, the people of Israel complete their final preparations.  Not long before, they had defeated the dual Amorite menace of Sichon and Og, the mighty kings who ruled over the Trans-Jordanian plateau from the wadi Arnon in the south that empties into the Dead Sea midway along its eastern shore, all the way up to the foothills of snow-capped Mount Chermon in the Lebanon mountains to the north.  In later Biblical history, that military victory would continue to loom large as a powerful reminder of God's care for His people Israel:


He struck down great kings, for His mercy endures forever.  He slew mighty monarchs, for His mercy endures forever.  Sichon King of the Amorite, for His mercy endures forever.  And Og, King of the Bashan, for His mercy endures forever.  He gave their land as an inheritance, for His mercy endures forever.  An inheritance for His servant Israel, for His mercy endures forever.  He remembered us in our degradation, for His mercy endures forever.  He redeemed us from our adversaries, for His mercy endures forever.  He gives food to all flesh, for His mercy endures forever.  Praise the God of heaven, for His mercy endures forever!  (Tehillim 136:17-26)


Our first section of Matot begins with a detailed description of laws relating to vows, and then continues with an account of the battle against Midian and its aftermath.  It concludes with the unexpected request of the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe to remain east of the Jordan in order to settle the recently conquered territory of the said Amorite kings.  The Parasha of Masei opens with a listing of the people's journeys through the wilderness, and goes on to delineate the territory of the Land of Israel.  It then describes the institution of Levitical cities, introduces the related legislation concerning the cities of refuge, and concludes with an account of the daughters of Zelofchad who married within their own tribe and thus secured an allotment of territory in Canaan. 


            As in the last few parashiyot, much of this extended double section's attention focuses upon the matter of the people's imminent entry into the Land.  Our concern this week will be with the penultimate topics of Sefer Bemidbar, presented in juxtaposition in our Parasha and linked once again in the narratives of Sefer Yehoshua, namely the cities of the Leviim and the cities of refuge.




            The commandment concerning the designation of special cities of refuge is comprehensively presented in the Torah in Bemidbar 35:9-34 and readers are invited to peruse the lengthy section.  In that context, God expectantly tells Moshe to command the people concerning the assignment of six cities, three on the eastern side of the River Jordan and three on its western side in Canaan proper, so that they might fulfill the injunction after they secure their place in Canaan.  In fact, the matter is later revisited in Sefer Devarim as Moshe begins the process by designating the specific three locales in the Transjordan (Devarim 4:41-43).  The completion of the mitzva with the designation of the three western cities is reported towards the end of Sefer Yehoshua (Chapter 20), emphasizing that in fact Israel eventually succeeds in realizing God's promise of possessing the land while Yehoshua himself completes the mission of his mentor Moshe.


            Concerning the cities themselves, their function was clear.  While the case of intentional homicide on the one hand and unforeseen and accidental manslaughter on the other typically presented the courts with straightforward evidence either way, the situation of gross criminal negligence causing death was potentially more complex.  While such a case provided no express evidence of premeditation, the circumstances could be suspicious enough to warrant a more thorough investigation.  At the same time, the family of the victim might be emotionally swept up by the death so as to take matters into their own hands, without awaiting the judicial exercise of due process. 


            Like a proverbial game of cat-and-mouse, then, the so-called "avenger of the blood" could execute vengeance upon the killer as long as the latter had not secured his safety by entering the confines of a city of refuge, the three of which were to be located roughly equidistant from each other along the length of the land on either side of the river.  But having entered one of the enclaves, he was assured of protection, until such time as he would stand trial in the town or city in which the crime had taken place.  If the judges subsequently found him guilty of murder, then he would be sentenced to death.  If he was acquitted of all wrongdoing, then he was free to return to his hometown and the courts would hold accountable anyone who attempted to harm him.  If, however, the killer was convicted of criminal negligence causing death, then he would be returned to the city of refuge where he would live his life in exile until the death of the High Priest.  Willfully choosing to leave the city's protective custody before the death of the High Priest would expose the killer to the whims of the avenger of the blood who could kill him with impunity (Bemidbar 35:26-27; Yehoshua 20:1-6.  See also Devarim 19:1-13 and Shemot 21:12-14).




            There is no question that the Torah's legislation acknowledged existing ancient cultural norms while at the same time it attempted to moderate and to eventually supersede them with more advanced models of morality and justice.  It may be instructive to note that the practice of avenging the blood, by taking the life of the killer (innocent though he may be of intent to murder) before law enforcement authorities can intervene, is still an accepted expression of primitive tribal norms that characterize certain communities in Middle Eastern societies until this very day!  Blood feuds, tribal warfare and clan infighting are not uncommon in this part of the world, though incidents occur with less frequency than in the past.  The cities of refuge represent the Torah's response to these phenomena, a conscious attempt over three thousand years ago to replace cruel and often inequitable frontier justice with a functioning and impartial judiciary.


            Significantly, the six cities of refuge were also associated with the Levites, for their own forty-eight designated cities included these six.  Thus, the exile of the killer to the city of refuge was not simply an act of justice and compassion, but one of absolution as well.  In other words, the killer (who was, after all, guilty of criminal negligence) had to not only experience the anguish of exile and banishment from his own town, but also make the acquaintance of the Levites, those whose special role it was to provide spiritual instruction and guidance in ancient Israel.  In this way the killer could achieve pardon by serving his "sentence" of expulsion until, appropriately enough, the death of the High Priest, for that landmark event would necessarily usher in a new era of religious leadership.


            At the same time, the Torah makes it very clear that in cases of premeditated homicide, there could be sanctuary from justice.  In the bold language of Parashat Mishpatim, "If a man schemes against his fellow and kills him intentionally, then even from My altar you shall take him to die!" (Shemot 21:14).  The institution of the cities of refuge, then, was a sensible middle ground, preserving from harm those undeserving of death while at the same time brooking no compromise with murderers.




            Chapter 35:1-8 actually precedes the account of the six cities of refuge discussed above, and it describes the forty-eight Levitical cities among which those six were to be counted.  According to God's command, Moshe was to tell the people of Israel to:


…give cities to the Levites from their landed inheritance for dwelling, as well as open areas outside of those cities.  The cities will be for the Levites to live, while the open areas will be for their animals and for their possessions…the cities that you shall give to the Levites shall comprise the six cities of refuge for the escape of killers, as well as forty-two additional cities…


Modern day readers of these provisions, only too familiar with urban sprawl and associated environmental degradation, have noted with satisfaction this early example of concern for built-up areas, for the Levitical cities were to be ringed by a "green lung" that could not be developed.  We note, however, that the primary thrust of the Torah's legislation seems to be social rather than environmental in nature.  That is to say that by scattering the tribe of Levi among all of the other tribes and effectively rendering them landless, the possible rise of a rapacious priesthood controlling vast tracts of real estate while amassing corrupting political power was inhibited.  At the same time, though, the arrangement effectively freed the Levites from servitude to the land, unlike the typical Israelite peasant who devoted the majority of his time and effort to the cultivation of the soil.  In this way, the Levites could be dedicated other pursuits, to the service of God and to the teaching of His laws.  As an earlier passage Sefer Bemidbar relates concerning the priests, in the aftermath of the failed revolt of the firebrand and self-styled social reformer known as Korach:


God said to Aharon: in their land you shall not inherit, neither shall you have a portion among them.  I am your portion and your inheritance in the midst of the people of Israel (Bemidbar 18:20).




            Aharon the Kohen and his descendents, denied the gift of territory just like the tribe of Levi their kin, were instead charged with the dual responsibility of serving God at the Mishkan as well as serving the people of Israel as teachers, judges and guides.  Throughout the Biblical period there is textual evidence that it was the latter that in fact constituted their primary role.  Thus, they often appear as mentor figures (such as Shemuel from the tribe of Levi – I Sefer Shemuel 1-7) or else as inspired religious leaders (such as Ezra the priest – Sefer Ezra 7-10 and Sefer Nechemia 8), or even prophets (such as Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel who were both Kohanim).  Conversely, when the later prophets criticize the Kohanim or Leviim, it is for the neglect of precisely these functions, for failing to teach and to exhort, rather than for the disregard of their ceremonial or ritual obligations (see for instance Yirmiyahu 2:8 and Malachi Chapter 2).  Moshe himself, in his farewell blessing of the people of Israel, while spelling out this binary responsibility of the Leviim, places special emphasis on the need for them to demonstrate loyalty to God as well as impartiality towards the people:


Concerning Levi he said: Your perfect lights belong to Your pious ones, those whom You tested at Massa and with whom You contended at Mei Meriva.  He (the tribe of Levi) said of his father and mother "I do not see them", of his brothers "I recognize them not" and of his children "I do not know them", for they instead observed Your words and safeguarded Your covenant.  THEY SHALL TEACH YOUR LAW TO YA'ACOV AND YOUR TORAH TO ISRAEL; THEY WILL PLACE INCENSE BEFORE YOU AND WHOLLY BURNT OFFERINGS UPON YOUR ALTAR.  May God bless his efforts and favor the work of his hands, may He crush his foes so that his enemies rise no more (Devarim 33:8-11).


It is instructive indeed to consider the true nature of their "choseness."  In many ways the heavy emphasis on responsibility and obligation, service and selflessness, rather than upon privilege and indulgence, parallels the duties of the people of Israel at large, for they too had been destined by Divine determination to be not only God's "treasured people" but also a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Shemot 19:5-6)




            Of course, the landlessness of the Levites and Kohanim did necessitate other arrangements.  Both the Kohanim as well as the Leviim, since they were not able to own their own parcel of land, were supported by public funds.  The Kohen was the recipient of the "Teruma" or Priestly due (see Bemidbar 18:11-13), consisting of a small percentage of the produce.  The Leviim, on the other hand, received the tithe (see Bemidbar 18:21-24), and were themselves duty-bound to extend a part of it in turn (consisting of 1/10) to their priestly cohorts (see Bemidbar 18:25-32).  Additionally, both the Kohanim as well as the Leviim when ministering at any given time at the Mishkan, partook of certain elements of the various sacrifices (see Vayikra 7:6-10, 32-36; Bemidbar 18:8-10, 14-19; Devarim 18:1-8) and were thus provided with a steady source of immediate sustenance.  Nevertheless, in light of the Torah's recurring association of the Leviim with society's weaker and more vulnerable members such as the widow, the orphan and the convert (see Devarim 12:12-19; 14:27, 29; 16:11; 26:11), it would seem that the Torah never intended for the tribe to wax fat from the people's offerings.  Rather, the Leviim were to maintain their focus on their more exalted calling by being DENIED access to property and the wealth that it typically conferred in ancient (and many modern) societies.


            It is perhaps the Rambam (12th century, Egypt) who best captured the special role and responsibilities of these clans, as well as the universal implications of the matter for Israel and for humanity at large, in his famous conclusion to the codification of the agricultural laws, found at the end of Sefer Zeraim (Hilkhot Shemitta and Yovel 13:12-13):


Why did the tribe of Levi not merit a portion in the land of Israel and in its spoils with his brethren?  This is because they were designated to serve God and to minister before Him, to teach His righteous ways and upright laws to the masses, as the verse states: "They shall teach Your law to Yaakov and Your Torah to Israel…" (Devarim 33:10).  Therefore, they are separated from the ways of the world.  They do not wage war like the rest of Israel, nor do they inherit land or secure sustenance by their own efforts.  Rather, they are God's army, as the verse states: "May God bless his efforts" (Devarim 33:11) and He, blessed be He, provides for them as it states "I am your portion and your inheritance" (Bemidbar 18:20).


            The above is not only true of the tribe of Levi, but of any human being at all whose spirit moves him and whose wisdom inspires him to be separated in order to stand before God, to minister and serve in order to know Him.  If such a one walks in sincerity just as God made him, and he casts off from upon himself the heavy yoke of vain pursuits that consume the masses, such a one has become sanctified as the Holy of Holies.  God will be his portion and his inheritance forever, and will provide for him in this world with sufficiency, just as He provided for the Kohanim and Leviim.  David himself exclaimed: "God is my measured portion and share, You shall sustain my destiny" (Tehillim 16:5).




            While we tend to focus upon the pomp and privilege of the tribe of Levy, and tend to dwell upon the propensity for corruption that is spawned by an unholy alliance of religious and temporal power, one cannot but be struck by the contrasting formulation of the Rambam.  For him, man's highest calling is not the tilling of the soil and the enjoyment of its bounty, for these are only means to an end.  Fortunate is the man who is able to transcend those things, casting off in the process the petty concerns that consume the majority of our lives, while distracting us from our truest calling to serve God and to comprehend His ways.  According to Rambam's reading, the example of the Leviim is an ideal that ought to inspire every man in every place at every time, even as the practice of the Levitical cities has been dormant for thousands of years! 


            But the life of a Biblical Levi is often a life of material subsistence, for though God never fails to "provide", He rarely enriches.  The Levi's goal, however, and by extension the goal of every thoughtful person, ought not to be the material excess that brings in its wake spiritual dearth, but rather sufficiency, contentment with one's portion, and the ultimate meaning that only God-awareness can bestow.  The designation of the Levitical cities, then, was the first attempt in human history to create the conditions that might foster not the rejection of the world or its denigration, but rather a truer definition of what ought to be our ideal relationship towards it.


            In the end, then, the matters of the Levitical cities and the cities of refuge come together, just as the narratives imply.  The overall thrust of the legislation is to create islands of instruction and inspiration in ancient Israel, points of light that might radiate outwards to illuminate the entire land and assuage the pain of its inhabitants.  Though these noble mitzvot are not currently practiced, we continue to hope for a better time when Israel's leaders will fulfill their role as true teachers, selfless servants of the people who seek only the welfare of the nation at large:


My covenant was with him, the life and the peace, and I gave them to him to revere Me, for before My name he shows deference.  True teaching was in his mouth and there was no iniquity upon his lips, he walked with Me in peace and honesty and turned many away from transgression.  For the lips of the Kohen preserve knowledge and guidance shall be sought from him, for he is like an angel of God of hosts… (Malakhi 2:5-7).


Shabbat Shalom

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