We all make mistakes. This is so much the case that we often judge our worth, not by avoiding errors but by how they were dealt with. Sometimes those mistakes are minor. Other times they can be huge.
This week's parsha deals with the most important and consequential of mistakes. If a man accidentally kills someone, he runs away to live in a different place, a city of refuge. Why is must he go there? Is it to punish him with exile or to grant him shelter from the zealous, vengeful relatives of the deceased? On the one hand, the Torah refers to these towns as "cities of refuge". The emphasis lies in protecting the accidental murderer from subsequent harm.
On the other hand, many rules surrounding the city of refuge lead to a different conclusion. The accidental murderer may not pay money to avoid exile; he must indeed flee. Additionally, once he reaches his new city, he may not return until the Kohen Gadol passes away.
However, even with this exile's strong sense of punishment, there is an end. The accidental murderer may return home to his original land and authentic community when the high priest dies. He is not cut off and ostracised for life.
Exile in the cities of refuge carries a powerful image for us. It sometimes feels like we live in a very unforgiving time. Mistakes are not overlooked or easily forgiven. The lesson of the cities of refuge is twofold: mistakes have consequences (and dire mistakes can have severe consequences), but there is a road back.
At this time of year, as we prepare for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, it is easy to see the process of self-improvement as being so big that it is hopeless. Our mistakes feel ingrained and intractable, and the challenge of reform is too big. But in truth, it is not. We can start slowly, one step at a time. The lesson of both Yom Kippur and the cities of refuge is that both in our lives now and metaphysically, there is a reward for taking that step.