Cities of Sanctuary

Parashat Shoftim 
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz 

Cities of Sanctuary 

‘Tzedek, tzedek tirdof’ – ‘justice, justice you shall pursue’ (Deut. 16:20) is the opening sentiment of Parashat Shoftim. The portion is bookended by ‘v’atah teva’er hadam hanaki mikirbecha ki ta’aseh hayashar bei’einai Adonai’ – ‘So you shall abolish the shedding of innocent blood from among you when you will do what is right in the eyes of the Eternal.’ (21:9) The first clause discusses the impartial rule of law: you shall not take bribes or show favouritism to the privileged, ‘lo takir panim v’lo tikach shochad’, words that echo through our liturgy. On the back of this statement, the Torah rousingly calls us to pursue justice, emphasising the word justice twice. 

Rashi, ever the pragmatist, explains that this refers to establishing just and efficient courts of law. The last clause comes from the end of the parashah which describes the weird ritual of the ‘eglah arufah’, the ‘broken-necked calf’—where if an unsolved murder takes place between two communities, the responsibility is assumed by both communities and guilt resolved in this way. 

The point is that justice must always be pursued, and people must always be held accountable, even when we cannot identify who’s done it. In a complex society like ours, this makes a lot of sense. Our moral sensibilities are often blunted on account of the sheer scale of injustice. It cripples us, makes our moral response impotent. What can we do? How can we change the way things are? 

Parashat Shoftim tries to bridge this gap between principle and practice by legislating from bureaucratic minutiae (such as bribe-taking) to the lofty principles of implementing a constitutional monarchy (limiting the monarch’s power and influence and binding his rule of law to the Torah). 

One of the pressing questions today that we need to bridge is the question of migrants. The papers have been brimming with what can only be described as disturbing language about the crisis of Calais, where migrants are described by certain segments of the press as well as politicians as ‘marauders’ and ‘swarms’, finding an ultimate low in the vitriolic descriptor of ‘cockroaches’ by columnist Katie Hopkins. When this kind of discourse is challenged by those of us who find this language reprehensible, the political answers are often as trite as they are depressing: how are we supposed to solve the migrant crisis, it is said. Surely we cannot let everyone in! We cannot share our standard of living with the rest of the world, etcetera, etcetera. 

It is not up to a rabbi to formulate a policy response to political questions. However, it is up to a rabbi to point out what the Jewish tradition has to say and to speak from a place of the divine values of compassion and justice. What is lacking in the standard responses is a kind of prophetic creativity to think out-of-the-box, to not get mired in practical constraints but to—like the Torah does—marry principle to practice. We have to raise that principled voice and speak out as well as encourage creative thinking on how we can make Britain—or any part of our privileged world—a more welcoming place. The Torah is nothing if not creative. This is after all, the same parashah that legislates the cities of refuge. This six Biblical cities, three at each side of the Jordan river, were instated to provide a safe haven for those guilty of manslaughter. In a time and culture where blood feuds weren’t uncommon, the cities would allow people to flee their persecutors and find sanctuary. By doing this, the Torah balances and recognises two realities: that the families of victims of manslaughter have a real claim to their emotion but also that unfortunate accidents happen and that people have a right to find protection. Although the cities of refuge didn’t cater to refugees as we know them today and tried to address a different issue altogether (that of manslaughter), it is telling that the Torah comes up with this creative solution to balance both aspects of justice and mercy. People, wherever they are, have a right to safety and sanctuary. People have a right to live without fear—a powerful idea that finds its expression in Shoftim’s legislation that no one who is fearful should go to war. Maybe we are called to give our lives for a just cause, but not at the expense of our own dignity. 

If only we could shift the discourse on immigration into more sensitive language and sentiments—language and sentiments the Torah is always careful to employ. The Torah warns us of ‘ona’at devarim’, the ‘oppression through words’ that is often committed against the most vulnerable in society. And who is more vulnerable than the stranger within (or still outside of) our gates? We have a duty to speak up, as Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner already stated. 

“We want to see them [migrants] as human beings, whose needs we try to understand, rather than a problem we can solve with barbed wire. Look at the office you’ve worked in today, the school you dropped your children off at, the carriage you’re in right now. Many of the people you see, or their families before them, came to these shores seeking sanctuary. Our city thrives on immigration, on years of taking in those who sought its help, of taking in people who have returned so much to London. The Jewish community is just one group who enjoy its richness today.” 

In order words: to relate to their plight as if we could be in their shoes. This is no hypothetical; it is the reality of lives lived—if we found ourselves in their shoes, wouldn’t we want the same? I will honestly say that as a migrant myself, I’ve found the language increasingly disturbing and frankly unbecoming of my host country. (Not that Holland has fared better, mind you—our xenophobic streaks has been aired for the last decade). 

Even for a ‘white, middle-class, educated’ EU-migrant like myself, the discourse is turning sour with talk of a Brexit. The Torah calls upon me—and all of us—to stand up for migrants: ‘you shall love the stranger for you were strangers in Egypt’. Shoftim exhorts us to judge with ‘mishpat tzedek’—righteous justice. The ordinarily terse Torah could have chosen to just use the word ‘mishpat’, ‘justice’, taking it at face value. But the fact that ‘tzedek’—righteousness’—is the descriptor is of great significance. We cannot walk away from this, even or especially if we ourselves are comfortable. 

The story of the migrant may be a mere generation away and it is a story in which real people suffer and die. We are not to stand idly by the blood of our fellow, to condone the shedding of innocent blood. Let’s keep talking and keep acting in ways that reflect our deepest values and call upon our society to do the same. 

Shabbat shalom.


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