At the end of the book of Bamidbar, we read the commandment to dedicate six shelter cities in the Land of Israel, three on the eastern side of the Jordan and three on the western side. Now we read about the dedication of the three cities on the eastern side of the Jordan. The three on the western side were not dedicated by Moshe who died before crossing the Jordan from east to west, but by Yehoshua who took on his role of leading the nation.
What is a ?shelter city?? This is a city that was meant to protect a person who unintentionally killed someone, and as was customary in the ancient world and in certain societies until today, he was vulnerable to acts of revenge by the family of the deceased. This person had not intended to kill the other, so if he would stand trial before a formal court, he would be found innocent. The death penalty is meant for murderers, limited to those who kill someone on purpose, not for someone who acted carelessly and killed someone unintentionally. But even after being found innocent before a judge, there is still a cloud of danger hovering over him from the threat of the deceased?s family. This person would be protected from this danger in a shelter city.
That is one purpose of the shelter cities. The other one is punishment. A person who killed someone unintentionally is not given the death penalty as would someone who purposely committed murder, but negligence is punishable. The punishment the Torah chooses is banishment. The killer must spend a certain amount of time in the shelter city, exiled from his home and natural surroundings.
We find an interesting halacha (Jewish law) in the Talmud relating to exile to a shelter city. This halacha says that ?a student who was exiled ? his teacher is exiled with him? (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Makot, daf 10). A person who killed someone unintentionally, and is used to learning Torah from a specific rabbi, the rabbi/teacher is banished with him to the shelter city. Why? From where did they learn this halacha? The Talmud explains: It says the person exiled to the shelter city ?will live? ? Do something for him that will provide him with life.
Maimonides, one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all time, discussed this halacha in his book ?Mishna Torah? and added a reason that seems to stem from the depth of this sage?s own experience: ?And the life of people of wisdom and those who seek it, without Talmud ? is considered as death? (Halachot of a Murderer, chapter 7). In other words: If we leave a person without a teacher who can teach him Torah, we have punished him far more severely than he deserves to be, a punishment commensurate with death.
With this one statement, Maimonides accurately conveys the Jewish world view that considers learning Torah as the ultimate human goal. The word ?philosophy?, whose original meaning in Greek means ?lover of wisdom?, pales in comparison to Judaism?s attitude toward the wisdom of the Torah. About a thousand years before Socrates, the father of western philosophy who was willing to sacrifice his life for the wisdom he believed in and spread, Judaism applied this perspective in a practical manner in determining a law based on the recognition that preventing any man from learning Torah is like a death sentence.