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City of Refuge

A Torah portion of murder and mercy

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Waterfront, South Street, Manhattan. (October 15, 1935) (Berenice Abbott, for her book Changing New York; courtesy New York Public Library.)

Nearly a decade ago, shortly after moving to New York from my native Tel Aviv, I found myself curled up on one of lower Manhattan’s park benches, bitten by the brisk November wind and thinking about life.

A few days before, strolling leisurely through the same park, I had noticed a homeless man getting ready to settle in for the night. He had a few filthy, raggedy blankets, some cardboard boxes for insulation, and four or five plastic bags in which he kept his shapeless possessions.

I’d stopped and stared. Coming from Israel, a formerly socialist state with fine universal healthcare and a reasonably efficient social-service bureaucracy, the truly desolate were a revelation to me. As I’d made my way to my rented apartment that night, I could think of little but the elderly man in the park, his beard the color of day-old snow, lying on the floor like a dead tree felled by a winter storm. It was a bit of humanity I just couldn’t fathom. To understand it better, I had to experience it for myself.

So, I went back to the same park. I had a 20-dollar bill crumpled in my right sock, but no backpack, no wallet, and no idea how I’d survive the next few days. I resolved to sleep in the park for as long as mind and body would allow, to feel, as much as I could, the crippling rush of destitution. I would never, I hope, know it in all its terrifying might; unlike the man on the bench, I had some money, a warm one-bedroom in Brooklyn, and a future filled with possibility. But I believed that even a taste of the old man’s fate would, somehow, make me better understand a sliver of humanity previously invisible to me.

Or not exactly invisible: after all, I had, at that point, lived in New York for a few months, and had seen my share of misfortune. For the most part, however, I thought of these dazed and unwashed men and women as beggars and bums, hapless recipients of a cosmic retribution they somehow deserved. If they were so miserable, went my stern and skewed logic, the logic of a young man who hadn’t seen quite enough of life to witness its cruel unpredictability, if they were so badly in need, they should’ve worked harder, studied harder, stayed off the drugs and the booze and the streets. They should have taken charge.

But when I sat on the park bench myself that November night and looked at my makeshift home under the stars and listened to the howls of the evening gusts, all of that rigidity froze in its place. I blamed no one. I wished for nothing but a warm place, a clean pair of socks, a bite to eat.

I stayed on the street for four days. I was escorted by the police to a homeless shelter, learned how to beg for spare change, met people with stories sadder than I can bring myself to retell. Finally, hungry and exhausted, I pulled out the twenty and hailed a cab home. I stared out the car window as it sped away from the park toward the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a different city altogether that I saw, a city of refuge.

They’re mentioned in this week’s parasha, these strange places. They’re the towns—six in all—to which those who had unintentionally taken a life could flee. Once inside the gates of the city of refuge, even murderers were safe.

It’s a concept dramatically different from our own. We like to bring people to justice, as if justice were a concrete place to which one was physically hauled. We speak of the long arm of the law. We pursue those we deem dangerous with vigor. You can run, we like to say, but you can’t hide.

The cities of refuge are hiding places. Their very existence, divinely ordained, teaches us that life is full of wrong turns, and that even those whose every turn is wrong deserve the opportunity of sanctuary and a fair trial. Without it, all we have is cold justice, neither comforting nor healing, and a land, the Bible tells us, corrupted by spilled blood.

Some current views of Las Vegas notwithstanding, there are no more cities of refuge in existence. But for anyone who had spent even a night without a home, every park bench and cardboard box and subway car is precisely that, a haven that exists outside of the ordinary geography of the town and whispers a faint promise of survival. They’re not magical, and they don’t offer a permanent reprieve from society’s dangers and demands. But they allow those who’ve run out of options a respite and a modicum of protection from the steely disapproval of the world around them. If enough people learned to see them as such, and see their inhabitants as deserving of shelter, every city could become a city of refuge, and all of us safe and secure.

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City of Refuge

A Torah portion of murder and mercy

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