The obligation to protect human life, stands at the centre of our tradition. Derived from a verse in Leviticus which reads, “Neither shall you stand by the blood of your neighbor,” the classical rabbis developed the overarching principle of pikuach nefesh, which asserts the supreme responsibility of protecting individuals who are in potentially life-threatening situations.
This week’s parashah includes a distinctive Torah instruction which reflects our tradition’s view to protection life and, in particular, of those people in society who are vulnerable. The Israelites are instructed upon entering the land of Canaan to designate arei miklat, cities of refuge, which would function as asylums for the perpetrators of unintentional manslaughter from violent retribution by their victims’ relatives.
As we read the Torah’s instructions we are reminded of the huge number of refugees and displaced persons currently scattered across South Africa and around the globe.
When it comes to dealing with the reality of displaced people, the biblical institution of cities of refuge provide us with a Jewish foundation for pro-action.
In the Talmud, the cities of refuge are discussed in a number of places. In tractate Baba Batra of the Talmud we find a striking teaching within a seemingly mundane legal discussion concerning the proper width of a variety of pathways: “Our Rabbis taught: A private path is of the width of four cubits; a path from one town to another is to have a width of eight cubits; a public road, 16 cubits; the road to the cities of refuge, 32 cubits.”
What is noteworthy about this teaching is that we find that the road to a city of refuge was required to be twice as wide as an ordinary public road. These teachings reflect something remarkable about the rabbinic attitude toward cities of refuge. The emphasis on the great width and sound condition of the roads leading to cities of refuge, illustrates the seriousness, with which the rabbis approached this biblically mandated communal responsibility.
If our tradition displays such concern for people who have themselves committed murder, even if unintentionally, how much more so should we feel compelled to protect these tens of millions of refugees, the bulk of whom are not themselves criminals but rather innocent bystanders driven from their homes as a result of wars and violence.
Living in a time where foreigners are exposed to hate and prosecution, we cannot feign ignorance to these humanitarian crises, regardless of where they may be occurring. And armed with the knowledge of these emergencies, we are faced, as individuals, communities, and as nations, with the choice of whether or not to respond.
There are many things that we can do. We can support the important work of organizations like UNICEF to lower the pain of refuges over the world, we can support Keren b’Kavod in Israel, the progressive Aid organization in Israel, or our local Jewish and Christian organization that are here to help. We can raise awareness in our Jewish communities of the refugee crisis.
As is often noted, the Torah has more to say about the proper treatment of strangers than it does with any other set of laws, including worshipping God or observing festivals.
Today is Mandela Day, and perhaps we all can contribute to the ideas and dreams he envisioned for South Africa, a State where the human dignity of every individual is the highest treasure we have.
(Source: Rabbi Danny Burkeman)