Levite Cities: Refuge

This week's dvar Torah was written by Rabbi Eli Blum, Former Rosh Kollel, Cleveland Kollel 2008.

Contact Editor
Torah Mitzion Torani Tzioni Movement,

Torah Mitzion
Torah Mitzion

Parshat Masei discusses one who takes a life b’shgagah (unintentionally). Such a person is banished to 'arei miklat' (a city of refuge). As the Torah states:

“You shall designate cities for yourselves, cities of refuge they shall be for you; and a killer shall flee there - one who takes a life b’shgagah.” (Bamidbar 35:11)

Interestingly, the six arei miklat are part of the forty-eight 'arei haleviim' (Levite cities):

And the cities which you shall give to the Levites: the six cities of refuge, which you shall provide for a killer to flee there; and in addition to them, you shall provide forty two cities. All the cities which you shall give to the Levites: forty-eight cities; them and their open spaces.” (Bamidbar 35:6-7)

Why were the rotzchim b’shgagah (the unintentional killers) sent to the 'arei haleviim' specifically?

The Sefer HaChinuch (408) addresses the relationship between the arei haleviim and the arei miklat:

“That Yisrael were commanded to give tribe of Levi, Shevet Levi, cities in which to dwell.. And of these cities of the leviim, there were among them special cities to be a refuge for the killer. However, in all of them, he would find refuge…

“The root of the mitzvah is well-known, because Shevet Levi is the chosen one of the tribes and is suited for the service of Beit Hashem. And it does not have a share of Am Yisrael's heritage of fields and vineyards. Yet, cities they required regardless, in which to dwell - they and their sons and their small children and all their livestock. And because of their great stature and their skillful actions and the grace of their merit, their land was chosen to absorb anyone who took a life b’shgagah in the lands of the other shvatim. Perhaps [it meant that]  their land which had been sanctified with their holiness would atone for him.

“And another reason for the matter is: Since they are men of pure heart who are known for their sterling traits and their venerable wisdom, it is known to all that they will not despise the killer who would be saved through them. And they will not touch him, even if he would kill one of their loved ones… And about this chosen shevet, it is said, ‘the one who said of his father and his mother, “I did not see him.”’ (Devarim 33:9) In other words, they always act with honesty and truth…”

The Sefer HaChinuch emphasizes two points:

The 'arei haleviim' were selected to atone for the rotze’ach b’shgagah because of the leviim’s high caliber.

The Torah trusts that the leviim will treat the unintentional killer fairly and honestly and will not harm him.

Yet, this second point is difficult to understand. After all, the Sefer HaChinuch’s proof - “the one who said of his father and his mother, ‘I did not see him,’” - seems to indicate that they were zealots. In fact, during the episode of Dina, their zealotry is on full display. Moreover, Yaakov himself testifies to Shevet Levi and Shevet Shimon’s tendency to anger and zealotry:

Cursed be their wrath for it is mighty, and their rage because it is harsh.” (Breishit 49:7)

Then, why were the rotzchimb’shgagah placed among Shevet Levi?

The answer is that the Sefer HaChinuch is alluding to the Torah’s fundamental lesson that Shevet Levi’s zealotry is pure, for the sake of Heaven, and derived from the midat ha’emet (truth). Thus, during golden calf episode, chet ha’egel, the Torah teaches us:

Moshe stood at the gateway of the camp and said: whoever is for Hashem, join me; and all the sons of Levi gathered around him. He said to them: so said Hashem, the God of Israel, ‘Every man place his sword upon his thigh; pass back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his fellow, every man his kinsman.’ The sons of Levi did according to the word of Moshe; and some three thousand men fell from among the people on that day.” (Shmot 32:26-28)

Similarly, Moshe refers to Shevet Levi as:

The one who said of his father and his mother, 'I did not see him,' and his brothers he did not recognize and his sons he did not know; for they observed Your word, and Your covenant they preserved.” (Devarim 33:9)

Furthermore, in Parshat Pinchas, Pinchas acts in Hashem’s Name, and we learn that his zealousness was a result of his being a kohein - the symbol of holiness. Later, he is blessed for this attribute:

And it shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of eternal priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and he atoned for the Children of Israel.” (Bamidbar 25:13)

Hence, the Sefer HaChinuch stresses that truth, emet, was Shevet Levi’s guiding principle; that this emet was produced in sanctity and purity; and that it guaranteed that the residents of the arei haleviim would treat the refugees in their midst fairly, honestly and according to the Torah’s laws and would not hurt them.

In Sefer Malachi, the navi refers to the emet of the leviim:                                                                   

And you shall know that I have sent you this commandment; that My covenant should be with Levi, says Hashem, Master of Legions. My covenant was with him, life and peace, and I gave them to him for the fear which he feared Me; and because of My Name, he was over-awed. The teaching of truth was in his mouth, and injustice was not found on his lips; in peace and equity he walked with Me, and he brought back many from iniquity.” (Malachi 2:4-6)

The Rambam (Hilchot Shmitah V’Yovel) famously says that anyone who dedicates his life to Torah is sanctified to Hashem and resembles the leviim, about whom it is said:

They shall teach Your ordinances to Yaakov, and Your Torah to Israel.” (Devarim 33:10)

Hence, anyone involved in a shlichut of mitzvah and Torah should inscribe the following words on his heart:

The teaching of truth was in his mouth, and injustice was not foundon his lips; in peace and equity he walked with Me, and he brought back many from iniquity.” (Malachi 2:6)

Torah Mitzion Torani Tzioni Movement (Zionist Kollels), is a Jerusalem-based organization, that sends groups of post-IDF religious Zionist students and families as emissaries to enhance Torah learning and a religious Zionist atmosphere in communities around the world. For the Torah Mitzion website, click here.