Parashat Masei makes mention of the Ir Miklat, the Sanctuary City. Upon assigning and distributing the land of Israel to the different tribes, the Torah mentions that among the land distributed to the Levites, there should be six cities among the forty-eight towns, that are designated as Sanctuary Cities. While these cities are meant for the unintentional murderer to seek refuge from the Goel Hadam, from the relative of the deceased who seeks bloodshed as revenge, these cities of refuge hold a deeper meaning. It suggests that even when someone may no something that is deemed illegal (either by Jewish law or the law of the land), we have an obligation to protect them from the penalty of their actions which could be hurtful and life-threatening.
The New Sanctuary Movement has taken inspiration from the biblical concept of Ir Miklat, suggesting that houses of worship and religious institutions should become houses of refuge for undocumented immigrants, protecting them from the punishments of ICE and unjust and inhumane policies.
The Rambam though interprets that all of the forty-eight cities of the Levites were seen as cities of refuge (MT Rotz. 8:9). While he makes a distinction between those that the Levites resided in and those that they didn’t, the meaning of his teaching is clear: we have a responsibility in our communities to create sanctuary for our neighbors. We cannot build sacred space unless our communities are seen as safe space for all who reside in it. The Levites were spiritual figures, as they participated in ritual. There was a belief that living among the Levites, these spiritual leaders, elevated one’s kedushah, one’s holiness. Rambam reminds us that part of that holiness is protecting those who are most vulnerable and seeing their lives as equally holy.
At a time when immigrants – documented and undocumented – are living in constant fear because of xenophobic policies and enforcement of those policies by ICE, may we take inspiration from this Torah portion. May we strive to create sanctuary for all in need and may our sacred spaces always be safe spaces.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky