Three cities you shall set aside within the land that the L-rd your G-d is giving you as an inheritance… and they shall be for all murderers to escape to. This is the murderer who shall flee there, and live: one who strikes his fellow unintentionally…
And for one who did not lie in wait [to kill premeditatedly], but G-d has caused it to happen to him, I shall establish for you a place to which he can flee
The unintentional murderer is not innocent. He is guilty of criminal negligence—negligence which has resulted in the destruction of a life. But for his sake, G-d commanded that “cities of refuge” should be established in the Holy Land. Cities to serve him both as a haven and as a place of exile; cities to which he is banished to atone for his deed as well as to rebuild his life anew.
There are cities of refuge in space, and there is a city of refuge in time. And while the spatial cities of refuge await the coming of Moshiach and the restoration of Torah law in the Holy Land to be reinstated, the haven in time that G-d has established for us in the calendar is there for us at all times, under all conditions.
This haven in time is the month of Elul—the last month of the Jewish year and the month that leads to the “Days of Awe” that commence the new year. This is alluded to in one of the verses that discuss the law of the “cities of refuge”: as master Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria points out, the first letters of the Hebrew words inah l’yado v’samti lach (“…has caused it to happen to him, I shall establish for you…”—Exodus 21:13) are alef,lamed, vav, lamed, which spell the word “Elul.”
The Accidental Sinner
Elul is the month that Moses spent atop Mount Sinai as G-d reconciled Himself with His people after they had betrayed their covenant with Him by worshipping the Golden Calf. By divine command, Moses had hewn two tablets of stone and brought them to the top of the mountain; there G-d inscribed upon them the Ten Commandments that encapsulate His covenant with Israel to replace the original “Tablets of the Covenant” that were broken in the aftermath of Israel’s sin. After forty days, which included the whole of Elul and culminated in Yom Kippur, G-d uttered the fateful words, “I have forgiven, as you request,” thus establishing the precedent for teshuvah—for man’s ability to rectify an iniquitous past and establish it as the base for a renewed and invigorated relationship with G-d.
Ever since, the month of Elul has been the “city of refuge” for all “inadvertent murderers” who seek the protection of its walls. For every transgression against the will of G-d is, by definition, an act of “inadvertent murder”: murder, because one has violated the essence and raison d’êtreof one’s own life; inadvertent, because man is inherently and intrinsically good, and all evil deeds result only from a lapse of awareness of one’s own true will. In the words of our sages, “A person does not sin unless a spirit of insanity has entered into him.”
The twenty-nine days of Elul offer an isle in time, a sanctum for introspection and self-assessment, for atonement and rehabilitation. It is a place to which we might exile ourselves from our subjugation to the struggles and entanglements of material life to audit our spiritual accounts and restore the sovereignty of our true will over our lives. It is a month in which to resolve that, henceforth, no accidental iniquity will mar the quintessential goodness of our soul.
Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Shabbat Mevarchim Elul, 5711 (1951), and on other occasions
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. The “Holy Ari,” 1534-1572.
. Shaar HaPesukim, Parashat Mishpatim.
. Rashi, Exodus 33:11.
. Talmud, Sotah 3a.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. II, pp. 623-626; et al.