This week the Torah lists all the places the Children of Israel camped at during their 40-year trek from Egypt to Israel. The lands conquered and not yet, are then allocated to the tribes as the narrative of the Torah concludes before the final push over the river Jordan into the Land of Israel. Remember the last book of the Torah, Devarim is essentially a revision of the forty years and a repetition of the laws.
Two seemingly unimportant issues are added to this narrative. One is the idea of Cities of Refuge. Here Moses conflates the cities of refuge with cities of Levites and priests who were not given tribal lands altogether. Six of them doubled up as cities of refuge and land around them both for security and agriculture was set aside. But there were forty-two others just for the Levites. A city was probably not much more than a small town nowadays.
Cities of refuge were a humane way of preserving the peace, controlling hotheads and providing refuge for anyone who felt threatened even by members of one’s own family. Of course, they all assumed strong government and policing. But in the tribal, gang warfare of those days the idea seems more theoretical than practical.
If there only two and half tribes on the east bank of the Jordan, Reuben Gad and half of Menashe, why did they get three cities of refuge? Why did all the rest, nine and a half tribes also only get three? Shouldn’t the allocation be according to size of populace?
One explanation is that when you are far removed from authority or where there are fewer constraints as there were on the wilder East Bank of the Jordan, you are likely to be less disciplined, a bit like the Wild West (‘though here it was East). Although fewer, the two and a half tribes needed more places of refuge because they were wilder.
We often feel constricted by community, by the demands of our tradition and the constant requests for help. But the fact is that there are occasions when we need community and religious support. When crises hit, and they always do, sometimes often and sometimes rarely, we could do with support and other people around us. We need the religious customs and traditions to give us psychological comfort and a sense of belonging.
But if we cut ourselves off from community and we feel alienated, we will be reluctant to call on others to help or the community to rally around. That’s why investing in religious and communal life is rather like an insurance policy. It seems unnecessary when things are going well, but we are glad when it is there to help us at a moment of need.