The word “miklat” is repeated 10 times in the 34 verses of Chapter 35 of the Book of Numbers. It is designed to be a place of safety, a place of escape, a place free from danger, a place that shelters you. But in this year’s reading of Parashat Mattot—Mas’ei, I couldn’t see these words — “miklat” (refuge), “arei miklat” (cities of refuge), “miklato” (his refuge) — without thinking of the ubiquitous signs in modern day Israeli towns and cities which use the same word — “miklat” — but which in the modern context means “shelter”, as in “bomb shelter” or “air raid shelter.”
Apparently the modern practice has roots in ancient practice. The Talmud records that: “Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: The words miklat, miklat [refuge, refuge] were inscribed at crossroads, so that the [inadvertent] manslayer might see them and turn in the right direction.” (BT Makkot 10b)
In biblical times, six “cities of refuge” were created as safe havens for people who killed another accidently, without malice or forethought. These manslayers were not enemies of those they killed, nor had they sought them any harm (Numbers 35:22—24). These were accidental deaths, and the cities of refuge were places to which the manslayers could flee to escape the wrath of the “blood—avenger,” kin to the deceased, who might seek their death in revenge.
Today, in modern Jerusalem, Netanya, Tel—Aviv, Afula — and many other places throughout the land of Israel — there are still signs printed on buildings and apartment houses which say miklat. And hopefully, they can still shelter numbers of people from bombs falling from the air. But, to my great sadness, there is no real “refuge” and no real “shelter” for the people of Israel. The bombs are not coming from the air; they are coming from inflamed Palestinian suicide bombers — individuals who are ready to blow themselves up — just as long as they blow apart numbers of Israeli children, women and men with them. These are not “accidental deaths” by people without malice or forethought. These are malicious, intentional killings, meant not only to destroy lives, but to destroy a people and a country.
My prayer in all this is that Israel will, in some way, find true refuge from the terror that is gripping its people. Whether the refuge comes from military, political or divine intervention, I pray that Israel will soon be able to focus on being a country where Jews (and Arabs) can go about their daily lives — eating, drinking, studying, praying, working and playing — in peace and fulfillment.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.