This week we study a double Torah portion, Mattot-Mas’ei, dealing with, among other things, the cities of refuge that were mandated in biblical times to protect those who had unintentionally killed someone (Numbers 35:9-15). Because it was common practice in that era to avenge killing with more killing, these cities were a necessity. A person guilty of manslaughter, who killed without premeditation and without enmity, was in mortal danger because of the prevalence of revenge killing, even though he was regarded as innocent in the eyes of the law.
Being exiled in a city of refuge would keep him alive.
But what kind of life? I imagine the guilt of having killed another, the devastation of having to leave home and family, the isolation of being in a strange place.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brought to light an interesting interpretation from the Talmud regarding cities of refuge, citing a teaching from Makkot 10a. In it, the sages say that if a student needs to seek refuge in such a sanctuary city, his teacher should go with him.
When I read that, my heart opened. The pandemic has made exiles of us all, and I keenly feel — sometimes on a daily basis — a longing for my teachers, for the classroom, for the casual hallway conversations that contain a jolt of depth, for the quick questions that open a deep well of wisdom.
My generous Talmud teacher has been meeting with a group of us on zoom this summer. We’ve been learning Sanhedrin 68a, the story of the death of Rabbi Eliezar after years spent in isolation from his students because of excommunication. As I pore over the text in my bedroom-now-office, I think about Rabbi Eliezar’s lost years, the years away from Rabbi Akiva and his other students. Toward the end of his life, the students come to visit Rabbi Eliezar one last time and he cries out that his arms are like scrolls of Torah that were rolled up. His anguish at having nobody to share his wisdom with is palpable.
The text goes on to talk about a time much earlier, when Rabbi Eliezar and his student Rabbi Akiva were walking together past a field and the younger man asked the elder to teach him something about the planting of cucumbers. Rabbi Eliezar said one word and the entire field was filled with ripe cucumbers. So it is with teacher and student: one word from a skilled teacher can make a student flourish to the point of transformation. Not having regular, in-person opportunities to learn feels heavy and sad.
Sometimes I wonder, if I am not in relationship with my teachers, am I even a student?