In biblical times, the arei miklat—“cities of refuge,” or “sanctuary cities”—protected unintentional murderers from their victims’ would-be avengers. The Torah previously discussed arei miklat on a number of occasions (Exod. 21:13; Num. 35:9-29; Deut. 4:41-43); in this week’s parshah, Shoftim, it pays particular attention to the geographic spacing of these cities:
When the Lord, your God, cuts off the nations, whose land the Lord, your God, is giving you, and you inherit them, and dwell in their cities and in their houses, you shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you to possess. Prepare the way for yourself and divide into three parts the boundary of your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, and it will be for every killer.
And this is the case of the killer who will flee there, so that he may live: Whoever strikes his fellow [to death] unintentionally, whom he did not hate in times past… he shall flee to one of these cities, and live. Lest the avenger of the blood pursue the killer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and he strikes him to death, whereas he was not deserving of death, for he had not hated him in times past. Therefore, I command you, saying, “You shall separate for yourself three cities.”
And when the Lord, your God, expands your boundary, as He swore to your forefathers, and He gives you all the land of which He spoke to give to your forefathers; if you will keep all this commandment to perform it, which I command you this day, to love the Lord, your God, and to walk in His ways all the days, you shall add three more cities for yourself, in addition to these three, so that innocent blood will not be shed in the midst of your land which the Lord, your God, gives you for an inheritance which would deem you guilty of [having shed this] blood… (Deut. 19:1-10).
This, in fact, is the second consecutive parshah in which the Torah has focused upon bnei Yisrael’s ease of access to a given city. Last week, in Re’eh, it was the distance to and from “the place of God’s choosing”—that is, the city housing the beit ha-Mikdash, or “Temple”—to which the Torah called attention. This topic recurred throughout Re’eh, and, remarkably, many of the key terms and phrases that appeared there resurface in our parshah’s presentation of the “sanctuary cities.” Thus:
(1) In Re’eh the Torah said, near the end of a passage detailing the prohibition to construct altars outside of Yerushalayim (in imitation of the private shrines built by the Canaanites): “When the Lord, your God cuts off the nations [כי יכרית ה’ אלקיך את הגוים] to which you will come to inherit before you, and when you inherit them and dwell in their land [וירשת אותם וישבת בארצם]…” (Deut. 12:29). In Shoftim the Torah says, concerning the “sanctuary city:” “When the Lord, your God, cuts off the nations [כי יכרית ה’ אלוקיך את הגוים] whose land the Lord, your God, is giving you, and you inherit them, and dwell in their cities and in their houses [וירשתם וישבתם בעריהם ובבתיהם]…” (Deut. 19:1). Nothing similar to the underlined phrase-pairs appears anywhere else in the Torah besides for in the instances listed here.
(2) In Re’eh the Torah said, concerning the slaughter of meat outside of Yerushalayim: “When the Lord, your God, expands your boundary [כי ירחיב ה’ את גבולך], as He has spoken to you [כאשר דבר לך]…” (Deut. 12:20). In Shoftim the Torah says, concerning the “sanctuary city:” “And when the Lord, your God, expands your boundary [ואם ירחיב ה’ את גבולך] as He swore to your forefathers [כאשר נשבע לאבותיך]…” (Deut. 19:8). Nothing similar to the underlined phrase-pairs appears anywhere else in the Torah besides for in the instances listed here.
(3) In Re’eh the Torah said, concerning the consumption of tithes outside of Yerushalayim: “And if the way be too long for you [וכי ירבה ממך הדרך], that you are unable to carry it, for the place which the Lord, your God, will choose to establish His Name therein, is too far from you…” (Deut. 14:24). In Shoftim the Torah says, concerning the “sanctuary city:” “Prepare the way [הדרך] for yourself…lest the avenger of the blood pursue the killer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is too long [כי ירבה הדרך]” (Deut. 19:3, 6). Nothing similar to the underlined phrase-pairs appears anywhere else in the Torah besides for in the instances listed here.
(4) In Re’eh the Torah said, concerning the obligation to visit Yerushalayim: “Three times in the year, every one of your males shall appear before the Lord, your God, in the place He will choose…” (Deut. 16:16). In Shoftim the Torah says, concerning the “sanctuary city:” “You shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of your land” (Deut. 19:2); “prepare the way for yourself and divide into three parts the boundary of your land” (ibid. 3); “and when the Lord, your God, expands your boundary, you shall add three more cities for yourself, in addition to these three” (ibid. 19:8-9).
Altogether, then, Re’eh and Shoftim present us with a fascinating contrast between two sorts of cities: the “sacred city,” on the one hand, and the “sanctuary city,” on the other. Both must be built upon settling the land of Israel. Both will prove too far for some to reach, especially should national borders expand. But the Torah’s response to this problem differs by case. In the case of the “sacred city,” the Torah insists that there shall only be one—even if this means that less sacrifices will be offered than might otherwise have been, or that sacred edibles, such as tithes, will be redeemed rather than consumed ritually. In the case of the “sanctuary city,” however, the Torah actively exhorts bnei Yisrael to increase their number, “so that innocent blood will not be shed” for lack of adequate asylum.
Several axiological propositions probably underlie this distinction, but the most fundamental of them all may be simply this: as sacred as Hashem regards our worship of Him, even more important to Him are our efforts to honor the sanctity of each human life. Hence the disproportionate allocation of the nation’s limited public lands. Let b’nei Yisrael dedicate a single site to Hashem (in stark contrast to the prevailing religious practice of Israel’s surrounding cultures at the time), which they can travel to three times a year; but let there be three cities, and then another three, dedicated to sheltering the vulnerable among us, so that, when they need it, it takes them only one trip to get there. True, the distance bein adam l’Makom may be (quite literally!) increased thereby. If, however, this brings us closer bein adam l’chaveiro, then the “sacrifice” is worth more to Hashem than any sacrifice that could possibly have been presented to Him atop the altar.
 The connection between these cities may already be implied by Exod. 21:12-14: “Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer [even] from my altar for execution.” Also reflective of this connection is the fact that the arei miklat were all located in the territory of the tribe of Levi, whose members ministered in the beit ha-Mikdash in Yerushalayim (Num. 35:1-8); and the fact that all Levite cities actually functioned as arei miklat in some sense (Makkot 13a).
 In a similar vein, it is interesting to contrast the opening verse of Shoftim—“You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment” (Deut. 16:18)—with the first verse in Re’eh that explicitly addresses the centralization of Hashem’s worship: “Only to the place which the Lord your God shall choose from all your tribes as His habitation to set His Name there shall you go there” (Deut. 12:5). The place of ritual worship is made only in one city, only in the territory of one tribe; but courts must be established in all cities, in all tribes.