Parshas Shoftim mentions the mitzvah of establishing arei miklat for someone who unintentionally kills another (due to careless behavior). Not fleeing to one of these cities leaves the murderer vulnerable to being killed by a relative of the victim seeking vengeance. Even a deliberate murderer can benefit temporarily from cities of refuge as he can live there safely until brought to trial.
The arei miklat save the perpetrator’s body – but his soul, too, needs salvation. Had he been careful, no one would have died as a result of his behavior. Only by letting his animal nature predominate and not taking proper care to avoid harming others did he accidentally murder another. Exiling himself in an ir miklat provides his soul the necessary atonement since, as the Sefer HaChinuch explains, “the agony of exile is almost equivalent to the agony of death, for one is separated from those he loves, and from his birthplace, and lives all his life with strangers.”
Today, the opportunity for atonement is even greater than it was in the time of the Sanhedrin. When Jewish courts judged capital cases, a killer who repented could not escape punishment since courts judge only what they see, and they cannot see inside a man’s heart. Now, however, punishment for murder is meted out only by the Heavenly court, so if an accidental murderer truly does teshuvah, he may be fully forgiven and spared punishment.
The Arizal notes that the initial letters of the words “ina l’yado v’samti loch – [Hashem] caused it happen to his hand, and I will make for you [a city of refuge]” spell the word “Elul.” What’s the connection between these words and Elul?
The Rebbe explains that every transgression constitutes, in a spiritual sense, “murder.” Our Divine soul’s life-force, which enlivens our body, is intended to be utilized solely for fulfilling G-d’s will. By using it for the wrong purposes, we “kill” that energy, directing it into the realm of negative forces that conceal His presence. Sinning unintentionally is like killing unintentionally, and sinning intentionally is like killing intentionally.
Just like the accidental murderer must flee to an ir miklat, so must accidental sinners. Otherwise, the “go’el hadam” – the satan, the accuser in the Heavenly court – will seek vengeance. Elul – alluded to in the words “ina l’yodo v’samti loch” – is our refuge. It gives us the opportunity to separate ourselves from our normal environment, desires, and habits – much like the fleeing to an ir miklat did for an accidental murderer. If we refashion our mindset into one befitting Elul, we can seek atonement, not only for non-deliberate transgressions but even for intentional ones.
Neither fasting nor self-mortification is required. Living in an ir miklat did not require abstaining from work or enjoying normal comforts, and neither does Elul. Taking refuge in Elul means reorienting our lives to realize what’s most important in life and the spiritual harm caused – to us personally and the entire world – by improper conduct. This reorientation enables us to do heartfelt teshuvah, giving us the best chance to be judged favorably when our great trial comes up on Rosh Hashanah.
Hashem gives us 30 days to flee from any previous negative conduct and habits and settle down into an Elul-like conduct. If we grab the opportunity, we can correct everything improper in the past and ensure protection from any Heavenly accusations against us. We can ensure that we will be written and sealed for a very good and sweet year.
(Based on teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)