This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18), contains 53 commandments! One of them is the command to establish ‘Arei Miklat’ – Sanctuary Cities. These cities are for refuge for a person who accidentally took a life. The famous example is a person chopping down a tree and the axe head flies off the handle and hits a bystander and kills him. These cities provide a safe-haven from the victims’ family that might try to cause him harm.
These six ‘Arei Miklat’, cities of refuge, were to be established three east of the Jordan and three west of the Jordan. Before his death Moses set up the three that are on the eastern side of the Jordan river, but he didn’t manage to set up the remainder because he never got to cross over the Jordan River and enter the Land of Israel. Joshua, Moses’s successor, finished by setting up the final three.
In case you do not remember, after hitting the rock instead of speaking to it, as Moses was instructed to do, Moses knew his punishment would be that he could never enter the land of Israel; he knew he could not finish the mitzvah to build all six cities of refuge. So why did he set up any at all?
Appropriately Rabbi Tarfon says in Mishna 2:16 of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Ancestors): “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We must do what we can, today, even if we will not see the inevitable outcome of our efforts.
King David so whole heartedly wanted to build the Holy Temple. However, God told him that because he was a warrior and had to take human lives, he could not build the actual Temple. Yet David wrote a Psalm to be sung after his death, at The Temple’s dedication: “Mizmor Shir Chanukat Bayit L’David” – This is David’s Psalm at the Dedication of the House of God” (Psalm 30). Just because he couldn’t be there, didn’t absolve him for preparing for that day!
The Talmud (Ta’anit 23b) relates an interesting incident about the sage Choni was on the road and saw an old man planting a carob tree. Knowing the tree took 70 years to bear fruit he asked the old man: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “Just as I found ready grown carob trees in the world; as my grandparents planted for me, so too I plant these for my children.”
It our Jewish heritage, part of our spiritual psyche, do our best to make the world healthier and safer. To leave the world a better place then how we found it. And that is a holy endeavor indeed!