In four separate places the Torah mentions the “ir ha-miklat.” The most comprehensive discussion of this institution appears in the book of Numbers (35:9-34). From the context, it is clear that the “ir ha-miklat” is a place to which a manslaughterer may abscond to avoid the vengeance killing by the kin of the accidental victim. So long as he resides in this city, he is protected from harm.
Rabbi Elchanan Samet points out that the key word in the biblical description of this place is “milat” which appears no less than ten times in the narrative. Accordingly, it is a “guide word,” that is, a term upon which the understanding of the institution rests. The root of the word miklat seems to be “shelter,” as it is known today by Israelis. The early Aramaic translation of the Torah by Onkelos renders the word miklat as “shezavuta,” meaning “rescue.” Hence, the city was a place where the manslaughterer would be rescued from revenge-killing. It is indeed a “city of refuge.” Similarly, in Rabbinic Hebrew, the word “miklat” comes to mean a “gathering place.” It is the place where the manslaughter would be gathered in. But when comparing the use of “miklat” to other biblical text like Isaiah 28:20, it seems that the word means “constriction. The manslaughterer loses his freedom though his life may be saved.
Accordingly, the place to which the manslaughterer escapes serves two different yet related roles. It is a place of mandatory imprisonment to which the manslaughterer is confined. It is also a place of protection from the blood avenger. Rabbi Samet refers to the first role as an “obligation” and to the second as a “privilege.”
The complementary functions of the city of refuge may actually be applied to all the commandments of the Torah. The disengaged Jew judges the commandments of the Torah to be repressive and constricting. But the engaged Jew judges the mitzvot as a privilege to perform. Both may be right. But the engaged Jew lives with the positive attitude that the disengaged Jew lacks. That makes all the difference.