This is my D'var Torah for Parashiyot Mattot-Mas'ei, on July 18, 2020.
This is a Rubik’s Cube:
The Rubik’s Cube starts all jumbled up, with random colors mixed together all over each side. The goal is to get every one of the six sides to be entirely one single color. This is tricky because whenever you move one thing toward one side, you move another thing off its place somewhere else.
Sometimes it’s possible to work the Rubik’s Cube by solving a whole side and then moving on to the next one. Even if you do it this way, you still have to dislodge something from that side temporarily while you are fixing up another side. You have to make the perfect side imperfect again for a bit in the process of tackling another side of the cube. Everything is connected, so moving something into place also involves moving something out of place for a moment. If you’re really good, you can move it back.
I think of an ethical life as a Rubik’s Cube that is partially solved, maybe one or two or even four sides solved but others stubbornly not. Moral dilemmas are usually like this too. You have a number of ideas that make sense, several sides of the picture are solved, but the whole thing isn’t, and something is completely messed up elsewhere,. Part of what makes it right on this side is making it wrong on that side.
So we have a partially solved Rubik’s Cube in the parasha. It’s the case of the accidental killer and the city of refuge. The situation is that someone has killed another person -- God forbid, chas v’challilah -- and no one questions that A killed B. It might have been a flying axe blade, or even a push because A didn’t know B was there. It happened. That’s clear.
It’s also true that A is not an enemy to B. There’s no specific motivation anyone suggests, no grudge between them. This is attested by other people in a court. That side is clear.
There is the family of B, who have suffered a terrible loss. They are bereft, and they are considered by the Torah in its time to be justified in seeking the death of A. It’s more than understandable; things can’t just be let go. And tthe Torah believes that the community as a whole is in danger whenever blood is spilled and nothing is resolved. Members of thefamily of B are given the name of go’el ha-dam, “redeemer of blood” or “redeemer of life.” It’s sometimes translated as “avenger”, but in the Torah it’s not a negative name. They are considered to be standing up and acting for the value of life. Another side that’s clear.
There is a lot of clarity here, many sides of the ethical Rubik’s Cube lined up, but there is no way to get the last side in place. If A, the killer, is put to death, that’s an unjust punishment. If A pays money to the family of B, that is considered an insult to the life of B and the idea that human life is beyond all value. If nothing happens, that’s also not just and does not respect human life.
The Torah feels both that the family of B is entitled to try to kill A, and that A should not be killed.
So the Torah instructs the people to set up cities of refuge, arei miklat, where A can safely escape the family of B. There has to be a city in every region of the land and every region just outside the land where some of the tribes live. The cities are supervised by the Levi’im, a special group of leaders. Person A stays there until the death of the current kohen gadol, the high priest, and only then can go free.
Again God forbid that anyone be killed at the hand of another, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I have been trying to think about the law of ir miklat as a response to all the unsolved Rubik’s Cubes in our social life. Situations where life and death have been at stake. Every motivation on each side is right, every suggestion for what to do is right at least in its own terms, but there is no picture as a whole that is right. Or at least it’s not as right as each of the pieces of it.
And in that situation the Torah institutes miklat -- refuge, shelter. It’s an end to killing, a suspension of the violence, and it’s not proposed as a solution. Everyone is frozen in their current imperfect situation, no one forgets what originally happened, and everyone is prevented from making it worse.
This doesn’t happen all by itself. The Levites are involved. They are leaders with a special spiritual role, who live not with their own tribes but linked across all the other tribes throughout the land. And the high priest is somehow involved. He is a leader whose job each year is to restore the community to spiritual balance, to cleanse the Temple and the community from all the wrongs that have happened in the past year every Yom Kippur.
Two of the life-and-death realities that are ongoing right now are the pandemic and the question of school in the fall, and the racial justice issues around policing and incarceration. Two really challenging Rubik’s Cubes. This week as I’ve had the parasha in mind I’ve been particularly attuned to how some sides are solved and clear, and yet the whole is not solved at all.
In my world as a parent, there are a whole bunch of statements that are clear about keeping students safe and keeping teachers safe, about the importance of learning and of schools for the overall wellbeing of kids and of families.... and yet it does not look anything like the Rubik’s Cube as a whole is any more solved than before. Some people think that it’s enough to solve one side and stop, and others think it’s enough to solve a different side.
Over the past two weeks, while criminal justice reform work in legislatures and agencies has not been the major news, we’ve had very visible conflicts in print and digital media, with statements about the importance of keeping the claims of people of color in the center, and with statements about the importance of open inquiry and critial investigation around proposed solutions. Some people think it’s enough to solve one side and stop, and other think it’s enough to solve a different side. The Rubik’s Cube as a whole looks very disarranged.
So what would the ir miklat, the city of refuge, look like today? I have been thinking that people are exhausted by the efforts of trying to solve even a single side, to reach some moral clarity on either of these issues. This exhaustion itself creates a heightened possibility that we will harm each other more, even by accident, that we will harm ourselves. A summertime ir miklat doesn’t require anyone to let go of the clarity they have achieved. It’s a pause, with a commitment to being careful, a promise not to make anything worse.
Just as each region in the land had its own city of refuge, maybe each ethical “region” where there is conflict and violence needs it own way and time of refuge right now.
Maybe we could take turns. I said in my e-mail yesterday that I think all of our educational leaders and all of our racial justice leaders and all of our police leader should take a week or two away, to find a city of refuge. I think we all deserve a miklat as well, a safe refuge for a time, because we’ve all been pried open and exposed for months now.
And I know I have been looking for Levi’im, for leaders to oversee these dilemmas who are especially grounded in service to us, and who connect the many tribe. I have been looking for the Kohen Gadol. A purifying figure or a purifying group, who are willing to put maybe not their lives at stake, but at least their reputations on the line. Leaders who will say: We know these things seem impossibly complex. But we want to be in this game; we want to solve these Rubik’s Cubes. We want people to stand around us and cheer us on. We don’t want fear of death and fear of killing and fear of harming to be all there is to say with certainty. We want to hope to be more certain, and we want to attack the Rubik’s Cube with creative problem solving, and we want people to value the magical things in our schools and our society, in every beautiful color. We want to be inspired, and we want to be inspiring.
We don’t know how to solve the Rubik’s Cube of racial justice yet, nor do we know how to solve the Rubik’s Cube of school this fall. We have a lot of sides worked out, but we aren’t going to get the rest of them by running ourselves past exhaustion, with times and places of refuge, guided by the right people.
You who have heard me speak know that slow down is not my usual message, and “just do a mitzvah and another and it will all work out” is not my philosophy. Miklat should be a very specific kind of pause. The Torah tells us every year to seek cities and places of refuge, starting in this mid-summer portion and over the nex six weeks. It will come up in the Torah every couple of weeks -- and then the Torah will say it’s time to head toward the promised land,. Time to finish wandering. But we can’t march if we don’t have the refuge we need. I hope you will find some in the next weeks, and I hope you’ll do your part to make sure other people find them too.