Then Moses set aside three cities east of the Jordan, to which anyone who had killed a person could flee if they had unintentionally killed a neighbor without malice aforethought. They could flee into one of these cities and save their life. Deuteronomy 4:41-42
The Torah portion for this week is Va'etchanan, which means "I pleaded," from Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11, and the Haftorah is from Isaiah 40:1-26.
In this week's reading, Moses gave orders for cities of refuge to be established for those who killed another person accidentally. The cities would shelter these inadvertent killers so that no family members of the deceased would take revenge upon them. However, why is Moses mentioning this commandment now? The cities wouldn't be relevant until more than a decade later, when the western side of the Jordan would be captured.
The rabbis explain that Moses himself knew what it was like to be on the run for killing someone. When, at the age of 18, he witnessed an Egyptian unfairly torturing an enslaved Israelite, Moses struck the Egyptian, who then died. The ungrateful Israelite then went to tell the Pharaoh what Moses had done, and Moses, fearing punishment, was on the run. Moses wanted to help others in similar situations, and he wanted to personally be involved in establishing these places of refuge.
However, the Jewish sages also share further insight into what happened after Moses went on the run. According to tradition, Moses' first stop after fleeing from Egypt was Ethiopia, or more accurately, just outside Ethiopia.
According to Jewish tradition, the Ethiopian king had left the country's capital to fend off war with the Syrians. He had left it in the hands of Balaam, who we know as the evil sorcerer who tried to curse Israel. When the victorious king returned to his city, he found that Balaam had led a coup, locked the city gates, and filled a moat around the city with snakes. The king was forced to encamp outside his own city. Moses, also a renegade, stayed there as well.
Moses eventually became an advisor to the king, and when the king died, the sages teach that Moses was made king. Moses devised a plan that got rid of the snakes, and he was able to retake the capital of Ethiopia. He ruled for 40 years. However, ultimately, he was "fired" from the position. Even after all the good he had done for the Ethiopians, they preferred one of their own to be their ruler, so they sent Moses packing.
The sages explain how in hindsight we can see how everything that happened to Moses was all to prepare him for assuming the leadership position of God's people, who would need an excellent, experienced leader, someone who also dealt with ingratitude at times.
The lesson to be learned is that while we may also suffer setbacks, disappointments, and even ingratitude for the good we have done, it's not the end of our road. Rather, these challenges prepare us for greater victories. We should never get down or depressed about our setbacks, but rather take them in stride and use them to serve God in even greater ways.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President