25 and the congregation shall deliver the manslaughterer out of the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge, whither he had fled; and he shall dwell therein until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil. (Numbers 35:25)
The structure of the laws concerning manslaughter, the cities of refuge, and the avenger of blood are complex and perplexing–particularly the idea that the Torah permits a civilian, who is not appointed by the court, to avenge the blood of the deceased. Nevertheless, I will address a different point this week.
The Sfat Emet (Parshat Maasei) asks a question on the above-cited verse: why is the reprieve of the manslaughterer linked to the death of the High Priest?
The Talmud mentions an interesting historical fact, namely that the mother of the High Priest would often do the catering for those people living in the cities of refuge. She would make sure that their lives were comfortable and that they were well-fed in the hopes that the residents would not pray for the death of the High Priest (Makkot 11a). Why would the mother of the High Priest have to worry about such a thing? After all, the fact that the accidental murderer wound up the in the city of refuge is the result of due process; why should the High Priest be forced into the position of having his fate depend on the emotional and spiritual posture of the murderer (note that the Torah does refer to the one who kills accidentally as a murderer)? And yet, it is G-d Himself who has commanded it this way.
Rashi, on our verse, answers our question in the following manner: “because the High Priest should have prayed on behalf of his generation that nothing of this sort would happen in the first place”. In other words, being the spiritual leader of the Jewish People, the High Priest, who was the sole person authorized to enter the Holy of Holies and effect atonement for the entire nation of Israel, should have utilized his unique position to protect his charges with a preemptive strike against tragedy. That is the level of consciousness that priestly leadership requires.
Still, the Talmud only mentions prayer with regard to the mother of the High Priest. Where does Rashi see an imperative for the High Priest himself to pray for his generation in this way?
Further along in the passage, the Talmud mentions that the linkage between the accidental
murderer’s reprieve and the death of the High Priest is only established if the High Priest was in his position at the time that the accidental murderer’s verdict was handed down. If the High Priest dies during the proceedings, and the verdict is handed down before a new High Priest is annointed, the accidental murderer winds up in the city of refuge in perpetuity. However, if the High Priest is annointed during the proceedings, and is in position when the verdict is handed down, then his death date becomes the date of reprieve for the accidental murderer.
We can ask, how is this fair? The new High Priest wasn’t even in position when the murder was committed–why should his life now be on the line?
The Talmud answers, because he should have prayed that the accidental murderer would be found innocent. Based on this, the Sfat Emet concludes, we understand Rashi’s explanation. Furthermore, he states, it is because the High Priest has a spiritual portion of the tragedy that the accidental murderer gets out of the city of refuge precisely on the same day of the High Priest’s death; his death atones for both of them simultaneously.
There are two powerful points to learn from this. First, that the power of prayer is so intense that it can cause both life and death. Second, that leadership includes the responsibility to see to the rectification of the world. It is interesting to note that the High Priest was not expected to pray for the incarceration of someone who, according to Torah law, deserved this punishment. We have a certain innate sense of justice that doesn’t get satisfied until the person we perceive to be the bad guy pay the price for his actions. Indeed, when the judgement of the Torah is applied properly–even if it results in exile or execution–G-d’s Name is sanctified in the world, and that is cause for praise. But this is a distinction that is reserved for G-d’s Law, not our own desire for vengeance. Our work is to create a world in which people are protected and evil has no platform.
May we be empowered to pray–and act–for the rectification of our world, and blessed to see the fruits of our efforts.
Good Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!
By Rabbi Tani Burton
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