Let me start with the most immediate, the most obvious, the most unwelcome, the most disorienting, the most frightening of experiences, in this week when we read from the Torah (Numbers 35) about those six Biblical ‘cities of refuge’- places where anyone could go (Jew or non-Jew, resident or stranger) and seek shelter, protection from bloodshed or vengeance, places you could go where you could await justice, safely, await the processes of law to take effect and not be at the mercy of those who had a personal vendetta against you, or who wanted to take the law into their own hands. What an extraordinary concept those cities of refuge were, protected spaces where – whatever blood had been spilled unwittingly – you could still feel safe from the sudden arrival of someone or something intent on revenge.
And what is most disturbing, most disillusioning, most damning, most dementing, about the world we live in and we see unfolding on our TV screens and in our newspapers every day more than two and a half millennia since those texts were written, is that in reality there are no places of refuge. The Torah is like a dream. And then we awaken from it – and the nightmare is that there is nowhere that is safe from death’s sudden arrival, however guilty or innocent one might be. You can get into a plane to fly off on holiday or to a conference – and be blown out of the sky. As those of us living in London remember, you can get onto an underground train or a bus on a sunny July morning – as in 2005 – and you find out that nowhere in our modern world guarantees a refuge from acts of human destructiveness.