by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple
If a person inadvertently committed homicide he could flee to one of six cities of refuge (Num. 38:6). Some of the commentators add a figurative dimension to this law and say that anyone who is not certain whether they are living according to correct principles can take refuge in the six words of the Sh’ma – Sh’ma Yisra’el HaShem Elo-henu HaShem Echad.
The first word, Sh’ma, “listen”, stands for humility. Most sins are committed with the tongue. We speak before thinking when we should learn to listen and maybe remain silent. Yisra’el, “Israel”, tells us that whatever we do impacts on our community, not only on ourselves. HaShem, “The Lord”, tells us that our words and deeds are answerable to a higher power. Elo-henu, “Our God”, assures us that He is there before we sin and afterwards, and we can always return to Him. HaShem, “The Lord”, is from the Hebrew root “to be”, and it reminds us that just as He is unique in His being so each human is distinctive and must be the best possible person he or he can. Echad, “One”, tells us that God is indivisible: we too should be integrated people without any internal conflict.
Our ancient ancestors who fled to a city of refuge had to stay there whilst the high priest was alive. There are many explanations of this rule, and all need careful study, but in our metaphorical approach we might say that people must know when the time has come to return to the challenges of the world outside.