Rabbi Ari Enkin

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, spiritual director, United with Israel

Use the next 30 days – on a daily basis – to prepare for the High Holy Days so that we will truly enter the New Year as better people than we were last year.

This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9). It has been called “The Constitution” of the Jewish people due to the many instructions and discussions regarding social order that are found within, such as: policemen, judges, kings, levitical duties, witnesses, war, care of the dead, and more.

This week also begins the Hebrew month of Elul, the last month of the year. In this week’s Torah message we are going to connect the new Hebrew month of Elul with this week’s Torah portion.

Enigmatic Cities of Refuge

Another topic in this week’s reading is the enigmatic “Cities of Refuge.” They were designated cities where a person who unintentionally killed another would be forced to relocate and remain until the death of the High Priest. These cities are first introduced to us in the book of Exodus, Chapter 21: “And concerning one who did not hunt [i.e. did not premeditate the murder], but rather, God caused it to come into his hand…I will set up a place for him to flee.”

Our sages point out that four consecutive words of this verse begin with the Hebrew letters “Aleph”, “Lamed”, “Vav”, and “Lamed” – which spell out the word Elul! Elul, the month before Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) is the month used to prepare for the High Holy Days.

The question is asked: It seems somewhat odd, maybe even creepy, that we find meaning in the fact that the Hebrew month of Elul shares a close association with…murder, albeit unintentional murder. What is the connection between the two?

It is explained that when a person kills unintentionally, he still needs some form of atonement for his deed. This atonement is the embarrassment and inconvenience of having to move to one of the Cities of Refuge.

So how does living in a City of Refuge atone for unintentional murder?

It is explained that if a person kills, even by accident, he is lacking a sensitivity and regard for human life. A person who values human life will always take the necessary precautions. For example, a diligent person would not keep a shaky ladder on his premises, store a firearm in an unlocked cabinet or leave dangerous medication within children’s reach. An accidental murder often means that the accidental murderer could have been more careful.

The Difference a Moment Can Make

The Talmud tells the story of the wicked Elazar ben Durdaya, who desired to repent towards the end of his life so that he would merit some sort of “World to Come.” We are told that one of the sages, Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi, cried when he heard this and acknowledged that no matter how bad a person is, repentance can always get a person a share in the “World to Come”.

Do you know why Rabbi Yehuda cried? Because he realized how much a person can accomplish in a single moment. In this case, a single moment of repentance. He valued every second. He valued life.

This is why an unintentional murderer is forced to go live in a City of Refuge. The Cities of Refuge were administered by the Levites, who served as role models on how a person could live to a higher moral standard and use his time to serve God as sincerely as possible. The unintentional murder would be influenced by his role models and become a more refined and spiritually sensitive person.

The Countdown is On!

Now we can understand the connection between the City of Refuge and the month of Elul. Just as the City of Refuge gave the unintentional murderer the opportunity to repent and reflect on his deeds, so does the month of Elul. This is because we are supposed to use the month of Elul to prepare for the upcoming Holy Days, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We are to spend the month reflecting on our deeds, examining ourselves and pondering what we can do to become better people.

The month of Elul began this week, on Wednesday. The countdown is on. Use the next 30 days – on a daily basis – to prepare for the High Holy Days so that we will truly enter the New Year as better people than we were last year.