“Then Moses set apart three cities on this side of the Jordan... The slayer who killed his neighbour inadvertently… shall flee there” Deuteronomy 4:41-42
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A verse near the beginning of this week’s parashah instructs the Israelites to seek out God’s Presence in the place that He will choose as the site of the Holy Temple – Mount Moriah in Jerusalem.
The tension implicit within this verse – between the Temple as a divinely designated place for an entire people, and the different journeys undertaken by individuals seeking a closer relationship with God – has been noted by many Torah commentators.
Nachmanides (1194-1270) tells us that there were no signposts leading to Jerusalem. Individuals might start out on their own, but they were often forced to ask directions from others as they sought to reach the Holy City. The journey is both a shared path and an individual quest. The destination – the site of the Temple – is chosen by God for the people as a whole; but it is also the culmination of a multiplicity of individual routes, a place of spiritual anchorage for travellers who have set out from different starting points.
Expanding on this idea, the 19th-century Chasidic commentator, the Sefat Emet (1847-1905), hears in this verse an echo of another in Genesis, where God tells Abraham: “Go forth … to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).
Despite the imperative to leave at once, Abraham is not immediately shown the place he is to go to; this is something he will discover only gradually as he himself changes and grows.
His is a journey that unfolds not only geographically but also over time. The Sefat Emet explains that although the particular sites and end points are divinely designated, the seeking out of God’s presence – in Abraham’s journey and the path to the Temple – is ultimately a very human act shared by all who search.
-Dr Leya Landau