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Divrei Torah on the weekly portions

BeMidbar: Massei

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“Along with the cities that you shall give to the Levites shall be the six refuge cities, which you shall provide as places to which a murderer can flee … You must designate cities which shall serve you as refuge cities to which a murderer, who killed a person accidentally, can flee … The killer is thus obligated to live in his refuge city until the High Priest dies. After the High Priest dies, the killer may return to his hereditary land” (BeMidbar 35:6,11,28).

The Torah teaches that accidental killers were to be exiled to refuge cities, where they would live among the Levites. The Levites, who were the teachers and preachers among the Israelites, played a crucial role in the killers’ rehabilitation. Interestingly, the killers would go free only when the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) would die. The Mishnah (Makot 2:6) states: “Therefore the Kohen Gadol’s mother would bring gifts of food and clothing to the accidental killers living in the refuge cities, so they would not pray that her son should die!”

But how did these gifts work as bribes? Or, as Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky puts it: Were the Kohen Gadol’s mother’s cookies really worth exile in the refuge city?

Rabbi Aryeh Levine used to visit Jewish inmates, mostly members of the Irgun, held under British rule prior to Israel's statehood. He became like a father to those prisoners, bringing them food, clothes and love. Once, during a Shabbat service, a messenger called him out of the prison. Reb Aryeh's daughter had become paralysed and the doctors were helpless. He was needed for support at home, immediately. After Shabbat, a messenger was sent by the concerned inmates to inquire what tragedy interrupted the weekly visit.

The following Shabbat, despite the enduring tragedy at home, the Rabbi went to the prison as usual. Normally during the Torah reading, prisoners would pledge a few coins to charity. This week the donations were far different. "I will give up a week of my life for the sake of Reb Aryeh's daughter," the first convict pledged. Another prisoner announced that he would give a month from his. Each one called to the Torah upped the previous pledge until the last prisoner cried out: "what is our life compared to Reb Aryeh's anguish? I will give all my remaining days for the sake of the Rabbi's daughter!" At this unbelievable display of love and affection, Reb Aryeh broke down and wept. Miraculous as it may sound, that Saturday night Reb Aryeh's daughter began to move and within days was fully recovered.

Rabbi Kamenetzky explains that the refuge cities were neither jails nor mere detention camps. They were environments in which reckless people became aware that careless actions have serious ramifications. They were constantly under the influence of their neighbours, the Levites. They would observe them pray, learn, and teach others. They would see the epitome of awareness and care for fellow beings.

The mission of the Kohen Gadol’s mother was not just to distribute food. It was to develop a bond with those people whose carelessness brought about a death. They saw the love a parent had for her son as she subconsciously pleaded with the inmates to spare her child. They saw how a total stranger, despite her great esteem, would make sure that their needs in the refuge city were cared for. They may have even thought of the loved one they had killed and his family. After developing an awareness of life, they would never be able to pray for the death of anyone, even if it meant their own freedom! In fact, they, like Reb Aryeh's prisoners, may have offered their years for the merit of the Kohen Gadol.

The Torah cannot punish without teaching and rehabilitating. It infuses a love for life and spirituality into former careless killers. Its goal is to mould a new person whose attitudes will cause him to be kinder, gentler, and a lot more careful.

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