Finding Our Refuge – Shabbat Matot-Masei, Friday, July 9, 2021

Don and I have been living in our home in Duncansville for three and a half years now – and I have yet to go through all of those boxes that got shoved into the storage room three and a half years ago. You know the ones I’m talking about: The boxes that contain all the stuff you didn’t have the time or the energy to sort in the old house – the stuff you just threw into boxes, taped them up, marked them as “collectables” or “office supplies” and promised you’d figure it out . . . later. There are a lot of precious things in those boxes, but it just takes time and patience to do the sorting.

That’s kind of what I feel like, when I read this week’s Torah portion. It’s the very end of the Book of Numbers, which means it’s really the very end of the wilderness story. Starting next week, Deuteronomy gives the microphone to Moses, who recounts the entire ordeal based on his own personal reflections, before the people enter the Promised Land without him.

So this week’s reading is the last chance for the editors to include all the last-minute precious details they want us to know. And I mean all of them. The rules about making an oath and sticking to what you promise God you’ll do. The vengeance that God demands the people take on the Midianites. God’s setting of the boundaries of the land on the other side of the Jordan for each tribe, and the reticence of two tribes to cross. The provisions for the Levites. And the final disposition of inheritance rules for women.

Isn’t it nice of the rabbis to make this a double portion, so we can sort through all of these precious items at once?

With so much to choose from, I want to thank my great friend and wonderful colleague Rabbi Richard Address, of Jewish Sacred Aging, for directing me to one concept – to one word – that speaks to us tonight.

The word is miklat. And it’s the word for refuge that’s used in connection with the “cities of refuge” to which manslayers are to flee, to avoid punishment for a death they have caused unintentionally. It’s not the same word as we use for “God is my refuge” elsewhere in the Bible. The word miklat is only used in the phrase arei ha-miklat, the “cities of refuge.” And it only appears in this portion at the end of Numbers when God commands the set-aside of the cities, and in the Book of Joshua, when Joshua chooses the specific cities in each tribal region.[1]

These arei ha-miklat, these cities of refuge, are safe spaces for people whose lives would be in danger from people seeking revenge. And so the use of the word in the Bible is something akin to how we would understand it. Rabbi Address teaches: “A dictionary definition says that refuge is ‘a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger or trouble.’” That’s why, in Israel, the safe room people run to in their homes when there’s a threat of a terrorist attack is called a miklat.

From the Bible, we know where the manslayers found their refuge. This week, Rabbi Address asks: Where do we go to feel safe? Where do we find our refuge.[2]

We all have that happy place that we go to, that place where we relax, take a deep breath, do some reading just for fun, play games, or sit and chat with old friends or our parents or our children.

Maybe it’s a room. Maybe it’s a backyard. Maybe it’s a city by the beach, or a quiet little town in the mountains. Maybe our miklat is even a person. It’s who or where we go to get away from the stresses and the demands of our day-to-day lives. It’s where or with whom we find joy. It’s where we go to renew our strength when we are tired, or who we seek out when we are in doubt. And we need this miklat. We need it desperately.

In this past year, many of us have found our miklat inside our own homes. That’s the place we and our loved ones could be the most safe from the spread of a deadly disease. We re-made and divided up open spaces into classrooms and offices and quiet corners and mini movie theaters.

Some of us still feel that way. For others, as the months have dragged on, and especially now that the world is opening back up, our miklat has become anywhere but home – which has taken on the feel of a lock-up more than a refuge.

Which brings us to Rabbi Address’s question: Where do YOU find refuge? Where do YOU go – or to whom do you go – for peace and comfort and security.

I want you to just take a minute. Close your eyes. And imagine your happy place – your miklat. The person or place where you feel safe. Where you can be you, and do you, and find you. Just take a few deep breaths and imagine yourself there . . . and think about when you are going to make that happen.

And, as you do, know that you don’t have to do all the work. The root of miklat, kuf – lamed – tet, also is the verb that means to aborb, to receive. That space – that person – embraces you and lets you lose the angst and the anger and the fear and the doubt that fills you up.

Like the trees and the plants around you that take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, your miklat absorbs from you what harms you and replaces it with what heals you.

As we all feel the pressures to re-integrate back into the world, to re-construct the “before times” – know that it’s okay if the future looks different from the past. That it’s okay if your miklat now is different than it used to be. And that wherever you are and whoever you are with – when you feel that embrace and that sense of security, know that you are in your refuge and you are safe.

As for me. I’ll be holed up in my miklat, sorting through those boxes for more precious items that have been hidden away.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] See Numbers 35:10-15, Joshua 21 and the tribal land assignments.


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