But you can also tell a lot about a society that cares about the less obvious needy. For Torah, it's not only about the ones who need food and shelter, protection from financial ruin or facing the loss of home or land. For all of these members of our community, near and far, we are told to provide a safe haven, make sure they are fed and sheltered. It's interesting how the Torah is concerned with a whole other kind of safe haven, for a whole other category of needy: the killers among us.
"You shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge to which a killer who has slain a person unintentionally may flee. The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the killer may not die unless he has stood trial before the community." (Num 35:11-12)
This is an astounding concept. The Torah is concerned with the safety of the killers, not the victims. Not only that, but if a family member were to avenge the death, that "blood-avenger" is liable for murder. As long as the death was accidental, and as long as the killer stays inside the city of refuge, his safety is ensured. In this, the Torah is laying out an important distinction between a society that takes care of all of its citizens, and the society that condones mob mentality, and perpetuates a cycle of death and sorrow.
No, says the Torah. Revenge is not an acceptable course of action, and the ones who are vulnerable to that kind of attack need to be protected. Our thoughts immediately go to the victims, just as they go to the obvious needy in our midst—they're on the street corners, in the alleyways. The victims of such a terrible accident are obvious to us, also. Their pain is in front of our eyes.
But Torah is teaching us not only the value of the rule of law in this passage. Torah is also teaching us to look beyond the obvious, and search out the invisible needy. The ones behind doors, or the ones whose smiles paste over the pain. The ones who never ask for help, or the ones who turn down offers casually made. Just as a killer cannot be swept up in a wave of passion against him, others who are needy cannot be swept away by ignorance or indifference toward them.
It's not always easy to see who needs a safe haven. But certainly, our tradition requires that we set them up for those who need them. It is a measure of holiness in our community; we are, and always must be, an am kadosh, a holy community, in every way it's needed.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.