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For he must dwell in his city of refuge until the death of the Kohen Gadol and after the death of the Kohen Gadol the killer shall return to the land of his possession. (Bamidbar 35:28)
In this week’s parsha we learn about the cities of refuge. The Torah teaches us that if one accidentally kills another person he must be exiled to the cities of refuge until the death of the Kohen Gadol. Rashi provides two reasons as to why the murderer’s stay in the city of refuge is dependent upon the life and death of the Kohen Gadol. The first reason given is because the Kohen Gadol’s mission is to make the Divine Presence rest upon Jewish People and thereby extend their lives. The murderer has done the opposite. He has removed the Divine presence from the Jewish people by shortening the life of an individual. The murderer is not worthy of coexisting in society together with the Kohen Gadol. He must be exiled until the death of the Kohen Gadol.
A second reason given is because the Kohen Gadol bears partial responsibility for what has occurred. Had the Kohen Gadol prayed with more intensity he may have prevented this tragedy from happening. The death of the Kohen Gadol serves as atonement. Only then may the murderer leave the city of refuge.
Perhaps we may suggest an additional homiletic interpretation as to why the murderer goes free open the death of the Kohen Gadol.
In parshas Chukas we learn about the death of Aaron HaKohen. Immediately after, the Torah tells us that the Canaanite King of Arud heard that the Jews were traveling in the desert and waged war against them. He succeeded in capturing a single captive. Thereupon the Jewish people made a vow to Hashem saying “If You will deliver this people into my hand, I will sanctify the spoils to Hashem.” Hashem listened to the vow of the Jewish people and delivered the people into their hand. The Jewish people sanctified the cities and called the place Charmah (Bamidbar 21:1-3). What is the deeper understanding of these sequences of events?
Rabbi Yeshayah Lenchitzs shlitah explains as follows: The commentators explain that the first time a word or concept appears in the Torah is when we can find a deeper meaning of its essence. The very first time the concept of vows appears in the Torah is in the beginning of parshas Vayeitzei. The Torah tells us that Yaakov made a vow to Hashem saying “If Hashem will be with me and guard me on this path that I am going; and gives me bread to eat; and clothing to wear; and if I return in peace to my father’s house; and Hashem will be my G-d; then this stone which I have set up as a monument will become a house of Hashem and of all that You give I will surely give a tenth You (Bereishis 28:20-22). Yaakov here declared that he will build a dwelling place for Hashem in fulfillment of the vow. We derive from this that there is an association between a vow and a dwelling place for Hashem. Indeed, Rabainu Bachya notes that the Hebrew word for vow is neder. This word shares the same root as the Hebrew word dar which means “a dwelling place.” Rabainu Bachya explains that when one makes a vow he creates a symbolic dwelling for Hashem. The simple interpretation of this concept is that due to the fact that one is bound by Hashem to fulfill his word, it is as if Hashem is residing near him and constantly reminding him of his duty. When making a vow, one has symbolically created a dwelling place for Hashem together with him. (See Sefer Or Gedalyahu parshas Matos for an elaboration.)
In this week’s parsha Rashi tells us that when Aaron died the Clouds of Glory departed (Bamidbar 33:40). The Clouds of Glory were a manifestation of the Divine Presence that protected the Jewish people in the desert. Due to their departure, the Jewish people were vulnerable to attack by the enemy. Rashi continues to explain that this was the reason why precisely now the Canaanite King decided to attack. The Jewish people in their attempt to restore the Divine Presence took a vow. As mentioned above a vow creates a symbolic dwelling place for Hashem. The purpose of the vow was to reestablish the dwelling of Hashem’s Presence among the Jewish people, similar to the protection that the Clouds of Glory provided in the merit of Aaron.
With this understanding we may suggest that the reason the murderer leaves the city of refuge upon the death of the Kohen Godal is because this law serves as a reenactment of the death of the very first Kohen Godal, Aaron HaKohen.
A murderer is a person who requires physical protection from the avenger of blood. The murderer however is not only in danger physically but also spiritually. The fact that he was responsible for the death of another person requires him to closely inspect his spiritual standing. He is exiled to the cities of refuge. These cities not only provide physical protection from the avenger of blood but also serve as a spiritual rehabilitation center for the murderer. The spiritual and physical protection of these cities is provided in the merit of the current Kohen Gadol, similar to the how the Clouds of Glory provided shelter and protected the Jewish People as they traveled through the desert in the merit of Aaron HaKohen. However when Aaron died the clouds of Glory departed. The Jewish people no longer had the merit of Aaron to protect them. They were on their own. Similarly, when the Kohen Gadol dies, the protection provided in his merit is gone. No longer will the murderer be sheltered due to the merits of the Kohen Gadol. The city of refuge that served as the murderer’s Clouds of Glory have departed. The time has come for him to take responsibility for his own spiritual protection. As he reenters society he must be sure that his spiritual conduct is up to par and thus cause the Divine Presence to rest upon him and protect him. This is similar to how the Jewish people restored the Divine Presence by taking a vow.
We may further suggest that this is why parshas Matos and Masai are juxtaposed and often read together. The first section of Matos is devoted to the laws of vows. A significant portion of Masei is devoted to the laws of the cities of refuge. The two are dependent and related to each other. The cities of refuge represent the concept of being sheltered and protected by the Divine Presence in the merit of others; whereas, the concept of vows represent to concept of being sheltered and protected by the Divine Presence in one’s own merit.
© Efraim Levine 5760/2000 - 5764/2004