Shoftim: A Sanctuary in Time and Space

MourningYou shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself at all your city gates that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment.Deuteronomy 16:18

On the personal level, “your gates” refers to the seven sensory gates of the small city that is the human body, its seven points of contact with the outside world. A person should appoint mental “judges and law-enforcers” over his eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth, to judge, weigh and filter the desirable and constructive stimuli from the negative and destructive ones.

-Rabbi Shabtai Hakohen (the “Shach”)

In the Torah section of Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9) we read of the cities of refuge, to which a man who had killed accidentally could flee, finding sanctuary and atonement. The chassidic masters note that Shoftim is always read in the month of Elul—for Elul is, in time, what the cities of refuge were in space. It is a month of sanctuary and repentance, a protected time in which a person can turn from the shortcomings of his past and dedicate himself to a new and sanctified future.

-by Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks
From Torah Studies (Kehot 1986), an adaptation of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s talks
“The Judge and the Refugee”

What do the cities of refuge, described in this week’s Torah Portion and the month of Elul have in common? In a sense, as Rabbi Sacks describes, they are both sanctuaries. They provide us with a place to be safe from the consequences of our sins and an opportunity to reflect, experience true regret over our failures to obey God, and to repent by returning to Him and making amends.

Rabbi Sacks points out that although Judges and Officers were appointed to any place where Jews might live, only is the Land of Israel were there cities of refuge. If you inadvertently caused someone’s death in the diaspora, you would have a long trip to find refuge while avoiding the “avenger of the blood”.

Sifri interprets the opening verse of our Parshah, “You shall set judges and officers in all your gates,” to apply to “all your dwelling places,” even those outside Israel. It then continues: One might think that cities of refuge were also to exist outside the land of Israel. Therefore the Torah uses the restrictive expression “these are the cities of refuge” to indicate that they were to be provided only within Israel.

Nonetheless, Sifri says that someone who committed accidental homicide outside the land of Israel and fled to one of the cities of refuge would be granted sanctuary there. It was the cities themselves, not the people they protected, that were confined to the land of Israel.

This seems more than a little unfair for, according to Rabbi Sacks, a Jew living outside of the holiness of Israel was more prone to sin and therefore, in much greater need of access to a refuge. Nevertheless, this was the command of God. What meaning can we take from such an arrangement?

This is the deeper significance of the law that the city of refuge is found only in the land of Israel. For a man could not atone while clinging to the environment which led him to sin. He might feel remorse, but he would not have taken the decisive step away from his past. For this, he had to escape to the “land of Israel,” i.e., to holiness. There, on its sanctified earth, his commitment to a better future could have substance.

Setting aside the literal meaning of this Torah for a moment, we find that when we fall into sin, we cannot seek a solution in the environment that lead to and nurtured sin. It would be like an alcoholic seeking sobriety in a bar or a thief trying to repent while left alone in a bank vault full of loose cash. To truly make teshuvah, one must enter into a state of holiness; a personal “Land of Israel”.

Elul is called the month of preparation. To quote Rabbi Joshua Brumbach:

Elul…is the month preceding Tishrei – the month the High Holidays fall in. Traditionally it is known as a month of preparation. This preparation, called Cheshbon HaNefesh, is a time we begin to take an accounting of our soul. We recall our thoughts and actions over the past year and begin to seek t’shuvah (repentance) for those things, and with those we may have wronged.

One does not face the Throne of God lightly, particularly when He opens His books and dispenses judgments for your deeds. When preparing for an audience with the King, it is best to take as much time as you need to become ready to enter into His majestic and fearful presence. But how can any man become worthy to enter into the Courts of God?

…as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one”. –Romans 3:10

How dare we even hope to enter into a state where we could possibly be forgiven by God? And yet we know that God does not desire that any should perish, “but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Elul is a refuge provided by God whereby we can have the opportunity to prepare, to reflect, to make amends for our wrongdoing, and to cleanse ourselves.

For Christians, all of these preparations and the events of the High Holidays themselves aren’t thought to be particularly significant. After all, through the blood of Jesus, we have been cleansed of our sins once and for all. Why do we need to go through an annual cycle of repentance such as the Jews do? Our salvation is assured.

But wait!

ElulDoes that mean, once forgiven and saved, a Christian never, ever sins? Well…no. Oh. Then what do we do about it? The answer is probably to keep our “list of sins short”, and to approach God in trembling prayer and beg for His forgiveness through Jesus. I hope we all do that. But aren’t there those lingering sins, those habitual faults we tend to brush aside and (deliberately) overlook? Aren’t we all human? Don’t we sometimes leave things in our lives undone for months or even years at a time?

There’s no reason why we too can’t take advantage of an opportunity God offered to the Children of Israel thousands of years ago. We can enter into a sanctuary of the spirit, we can take the time to seriously explore our unrepented sins, our hidden and shameful faults, and prepare our souls for the act of total rejection of our errors and completely return to Him.

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:4, it states, “Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place. Fortunately, we have an intecessor and a High Priest who has stood in our place.

For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. –Hebrews 4:15

That should wipe away all of our excuses. Like the previous example of the Jewish man in the diaspora, sin has called and we have answered. Now we are desperate to return to holiness and to God, but like the Jewish traveler, we must journey long, we must escape the place of our sin. We must strive to return to where we can be safe and secure in time and space to delve into the depths of who we are and explore the wine-dark abyss. It is only there that we can see the repulsiveness of our sins, be repelled by our acts of rebellion, cry out in mercy to God, and as a prodigal son, return to him expecting nothing, and yet receiving everything from our Father.

A refuge is a place to which one flees—that is, where one lays aside one’s past and makes a new home. Elul is the sublimation of the past for the sake of a better future. And it is the necessary preparation for the blessings of Rosh Hashanah, the promise of plenty and fulfillment in the year to come.

I’m taking a small break from writing “morning meditations” to do some traveling. I’m not sure what sort of Internet access I’ll have, but definitely I’ll be back online and writing sometime early next week (sooner if I can manage it).


5 thoughts on “Shoftim: A Sanctuary in Time and Space”

  1. Thank you. May you also be inscribed for a sweet new year. I’ll be away from my computer for the next few days, so I’ll also say, Good Shabbos.

  2. Thank you for the comment and the link, Evelina. Obviously, I’m not speaking from a Jewish perspective, but like you, I’m “very strongly drawn to Judaism on an intellectual, spiritual, and emotional level” (although I’m not pursuing conversion).

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