July 14, 2023 / 25 Tamuz 5783 Parshat Ma’asei

The individual and the community – who comes first?  According to our Torah reading this week, and contrary to the blossoming of the Jewish nation as the pinnacle of the Exodus story, the answer here points to the individual.  We have lots of Jewish aphorisms and texts that attest to the priority of the one over the many, even over the common good.  For example, from the Mishnah (it’s in the Koran as well), a human was created alone to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul is as if he destroyed an entire world, and whoever saves a single life is as if he had saved a complete world.  And in the Mishnah we also read that a human being was created from one ancestor for the sake of peace among human beings, so that one could not say to the other, ‘My father was greater than yours’ .  And yet again regarding the creation of humankind, if a person makes many coins from one mold, they are all the same, but the supreme Sovereign of Sovereigns, the Holy One, blessed be God, made every person in the stamp of the first human, yet not one of them is identical to another. The human being is in the image and likeness of God. The concept of God, singular and alone, gives rise to the concept of the human person, singular and alone.  It is said that ideally the Jewish national character cannot bear the baseless suffering of any one person, and thus, we are obligated, according to the laws of the cities of refuge, to provide safe spaces for those unable to protect themselves.

 In the context of the Torah, It was often impossible to establish with certainty what had occurred without a full judicial inquiry (some things never change). But how could such an inquiry be undertaken in a world in which the swift justice mandated by the lex talionis (eye for an eye-based punishment) was so deeply ingrained along with the compulsion of family avengers?

And that is why this week’s Torah reading mandates the designation of “cities of refuge” in various parts of the land of Israel, to protect the unintentional perpetrator from intended harm while awaiting the judicial system to assess harm done and resolve responsibility.  In addition, time spent in a city of refuge offered a cooling-off period to allow the victim’s family to come to terms with their loss. 

The ancient cities of refuge were established for the individual.  At this moment in time, just as at the foot of Mt. Sinai, we might associate the pursuit and existence of safe spaces for us as an entire Jewish people, as a collective one.  My own mind is running a zigzag marathon from past to present.  I am thinking of Safe Haven, the moniker given to Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, where 982 Holocaust refugees from World War II were allowed into the United States as “guests” of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and housed there from August 1944 until February 1946. Albeit it was a tiny, symbolic gesture as a refugee shelter on the part of the US government, it was assuredly a space safe from the Nazi forces across the sea that were aimed at annihilating us.  The State of Israel, from its inception, was always meant to be a safe and secure homeland for all Jews.  Our own sanctuary along with all other worship spaces are meant to be just that, a place where we can be our authentic selves, supported by each other in our beliefs and practices and sheltered in and by the presence of the Divine. 

  What determines a safe space for one or many? An architectural study concludes that space informs practice within it. It affects how we spiritually engage, how we socialize, how we conduct our professional environments, how we live in our homes. Philosopher Alain de Botton observes that we seem divided between an urge to override our senses and numb ourselves to unfriendly settings and a contradictory impulse to acknowledge the extent to which our identities are indelibly connected to, and will shift along with, our locations. Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places. The spaces we design, the buildings we construct, and the areas we demarcate all define and shape our experience of moving through the world.  The cities of refuge in the Torah, walled and guarded at the entrances and exits, not only provided a safe space for an extended period of time for those vulnerable to scorn, revenge, and perhaps injustice, but also provided a spiritual structure for an individual to reflect, atone, and eventually be integrated back into society.  I imagine that sitting here in this sacred space on Shabbat, what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “the palace in time,” provides that safety, comfort, and respite that we might need to tackle what may come once we leave here.

There is a lot of discussion about safety and security in the Jewish community, with the emphasis on threats that come from outside, not on threats from within the community.  According to the Anti-Defamation League, about six-in-ten Jews report having had a direct, personal experience with anti-Semitism in the past 12 months, such as seeing anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, experiencing online harassment, or hearing someone repeat an anti-Semitic trope. Just over half also say they feel less safe as Jews in America than they did five years ago, while very few feel safer. Even so, the vast majority of those who feel less safe say it has not stopped them from participating in Jewish observances and events.  On the one hand, the opposite of a safe space is one that conjures up fear.  Fear of bodily harm, fear of loss of personal agency, fear of criticism, fear of being shamed, fear for the safety of another whom you love and cherish, fear of not being accepted by others, and any number of fears that are real and palpable to every human being.  Fears are real, but perhaps a safe and brave space is all about trusting oneself. Perhaps, It means trusting that one can handle what might happen.  Even though this week’s Torah directive focuses on the plight of an individual, we know that we need each other to be safe.  And, like the unintentional perpetrators of the cities of refuge, a defined space and time, protected by other humans, allows for self-awareness and growth.  These cities of refuge in a modern sensibility implore us to create spaces where all of us feel secure in being our whole selves, recognizing that it’s okay if we’re still learning. What a model for our children, who often feel the floor collapsing under them when they cannot perform to grownup values and expectations.  And oh, that our prisons and punitive places of confinement adopted the spiritual framework, status of sanctity, and restorative goals of these ancient cities of refuge.

Lastly, from an online public discussion of safe spaces by the Association of Jewish Fundraising, and assuredly food for further thought, “communities all over the country are discussing the utility of safe spaces and their numerous effects, and that we lack enough safe spaces–places for free discussion and free expression.  Moreover, we may discuss the presence of safe spaces but we often don’t discuss the important conversations that take place in safe spaces. What we do know is that synagogues are safe spaces and create a sense of community among congregants, especially to offer a guaranteed shoulder to cry on when the world shows its uglier side. This is not a retreat or shelter from ideas. This sacred and safe space provides through community and through prayer an unconditional ear, God’s unconditional ear, that believes, understands, and supports people in times of need, challenge, and fear. We cannot imagine life without our safe and sacred refuge.

May we all go from strength to strength in this place and in our endeavors to re-create the city of refuge for our times!  Keyn yihi ratzon.  Shabbat shalom.