This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, speaks about the cities of refuge a person would flee to if he accidentally killed someone. There, the unintentional killer would dwell, protected from the wrath of the victim’s relatives, until the High Priest who served in the Holy Temple passed away.
But not only unintentional killers sought refuge in these cities; even someone who committed murder intentionally was expected to flee there as well. The court would then convene and issue its ruling on the death. The cities of refuge offered protection, if only temporarily in some cases, to anyone who had caused a loss of life.
After the destruction of the Holy Temple and the dispersion of the Jewish people, the cities of refuge ceased to exist in the physical sense. Yet the Torah is eternal, and its lessons apply in every generation. In our times, therefore, the concept of “cities of refuge” finds expression in the spiritual dimension.
Our Sages taught that “the words of Torah absorb.” In other words, the Torah itself is the refuge in which all may seek asylum. In the spiritual sense, “killing” symbolizes the act of committing a sin, causing a spiritual death to the G-dly soul, for the Torah’s 613 commandments are the “ropes” that bind the soul to G-d. Transgressing the Torah’s commandments damages those ties and threatens to cut the soul off from its G-dly source.
We learn from this week’s Torah portion that it is never too late to repent, no matter how grave a transgression has been committed. Even the person who deliberately sinned can do teshuva (repentance) and seek protection in the refuge of Torah.
In one sense, nowadays we have a distinct advantage over our forefathers who lived during the times of the Holy Temple. In those days, repentance alone was not enough to atone for a sin. The unintentional killer had to remain exiled in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest, and the intentional murderer (as defined by the Torah) received capital punishment. Yet after the destruction of the Temple, teshuva alone can atone for even the gravest sin.
Years ago, when Jewish courts had ultimate authority, a judge could only rule on what he himself had seen. G-d, however, can look into the heart of man and judge whether or not his repentance is sincere.
In the same way, the month of Elul, during which we take account of our actions of the previous year, is a “city of refuge” in time, offering us the same opportunity to clear the slate and merit a good and sweet year to come.