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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Max Davis


Parashat Matot Masei 5780

וְהִצִּ֨ילוּ הָעֵדָ֜ה אֶת־הָרֹצֵ֗חַ מִיַּד֮ גֹּאֵ֣ל הַדָּם֒ וְהֵשִׁ֤יבוּ אֹתוֹ֙ הָֽעֵדָ֔ה אֶל־עִ֥יר מִקְלָט֖וֹ אֲשֶׁר־נָ֣ס שָׁ֑מָּה וְיָ֣שַׁב בָּ֗הּ עַד־מוֹת֙ הַכֹּהֵ֣ן הַגָּדֹ֔ל אֲשֶׁר־מָשַׁ֥ח אֹת֖וֹ בְּשֶׁ֥מֶן הַקֹּֽדֶשׁ׃

The assembly shall protect the manslayer from the blood-avenger, and the assembly shall restore him to the city of refuge to which he fled, and there he shall remain until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the sacred oil.      [Bemidbar 35:25]


Permit me some thoughts this week about loss.  It is, after all, the Three Weeks. Our point of departure is the pasuk above from parshat Matot.  It spells out the fate of one guilty of manslaughter.  S/he must flee to an Ir Miklat and may not depart until the death of the Kohen Gadol.  This verse has been vigorously discussed going back at least to Talmudic times.  One of the most commonly asked questions is about the death of the Kohen Gadol.  What purpose does his death serve in the grand scheme of things? The Gemara (Makkot 11b) suggests that the Kohen Gadol failed to beseech Hashem to bring about a favorable verdict, one that would have spared the defendant a sentence of exile. Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim III 40:5 explains that the death of the Kohen Gadol would essentially unite all parties in grief, and old grudges would give way in the face of national tragedy.

שבזה תנוח דעת הגואל אשר נהרג קרובו - שזה ענין טבעי לאדם כל מי שתקרהו צרה כשתבוא גם כן לזולתו כיוצא בה או גדולה ממנה ימצא נחמה בזה על מקרהו - ואין במקרי מות בני אדם אצלינו יותר גדול ממיתת 'כהן גדול':

By his [the Kohen Gadol’s] death, the relative of the slain person becomes reconciled, for it is a natural phenomenon that we find consolation in our misfortune when the same misfortune or a greater one has befallen another person.  Amongst us no death causes more grief than that of the high-priest. Abarbanel presents a slightly different theory.  The death of the Kohen Gadol does indeed shock the nation, but it specifically causes the go’alei hadam (potential avengers) to examine their own mortality and reevaluate their vengeful priorities.

ובמותו כל העם יחרד והחי יתן אל לבו כי ימי האדם כצל עולם ולמה לא יסיר מרעיוניו נקמת דם קרובו

With his death, the entire nation will tremble and the living will consult their hearts, for the days of man are like a fleeting shadow, and why not remove from his thoughts (the intention) to avenge his kin. Other fascinating ideas come from the Rashbam and the Akeidat Yitzchak.  Rashbam believed that “Kohen Gadol” is actually a reference to the senior judge on the court.  The convicted manslaughterer may not depart the Ir Miklat until the death of that judge.  The Akeidat Yitzchak accepted the conventional understanding of Kohen Gadol, but observed that he had certain authority beyond his ritual role.    The Arei Miklat fell under his direct jurisdiction, therefore:

וכשבא הרוצח לשם, זכה בו אדוני הארץ להיות כאחד מבני עירו לכל צורכי העיר, מסיה ועבודותיה, וראתה החכמה האלוקית שלא ימשול בו רק ימי מלך אחד. ולזה במות הכהן שהוא מלך עליהם – ישוב אל אחוזתו.

...When the killer comes there, the master of [that] land has the rights over him as one of the people of his city, regarding all of the needs of the city, its taxes and its work; such that the divine wisdom saw fit that he should only rule over him during the days of one king. And for that reason, when the high priest - who is the king over them - dies, he returns to his holding.

Seforno adds to the discussion an important admission, that different convicts will serve different sentences depending upon how soon the Kohen Gadol dies.  He sees in this the divine hand of justice, for only Hashem can fathom the precise degree of accident in any case of manslaughter.

Shadal supports Seforno’s view adding in the name of the Minchah Belulah that the death of the Kohen Gadol triggers an interesting ‘side effect’ - the appointment of a new Kohen Gadol.  Releasing residents of Arei Miklat at this time increases the popular joy and, potentially, affection for the incoming Kohen Gadol.  Conditioning the residents’ release upon the death of the Kohen Gadol may be a way of assisting his replacement.  (A novel approach, but not without flaws, as Nechama Leibowitz alludes to in her parsha questions.)

I would like to share one additional approach from a contemporary source, Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Nagen of Yeshivat Otniel.  In his commentary Lehitorer L’Yom Chadash (Maggid 2013) Rabbi Nagen is particularly interested in the blood of the Kohen Gadol, as the title of his piece suggests: Damo shel Kohen HaGadol.  Rabbi Nagen highlights a pair of psukim that follow shortly after the pasuk quoted above:

וְלֹא־תִקְח֣וּ כֹ֔פֶר לָנ֖וּס אֶל־עִ֣יר מִקְלָט֑וֹ לָשׁוּב֙ לָשֶׁ֣בֶת בָּאָ֔רֶץ עַד־מ֖וֹת הַכֹּהֵֽן׃ וְלֹֽא־תַחֲנִ֣יפוּ אֶת־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתֶּם֙ בָּ֔הּ כִּ֣י הַדָּ֔ם ה֥וּא יַחֲנִ֖יף אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְלָאָ֣רֶץ לֹֽא־יְכֻפַּ֗ר לַדָּם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר שֻׁפַּךְ־בָּ֔הּ כִּי־אִ֖ם בְּדַ֥ם שֹׁפְכֽוֹ׃

Nor may you accept ransom in lieu of flight to a city of refuge, enabling one to return to live on his land before the death of the priest.   You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.

Consistent with the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’, Rabbi Nagen observes that blood must be exchanged for blood.  In the case of murder (not manslaughter,) the accused is executed.  In the case of manslaughter however, it seems that the blood exchanged for blood is that of the Kohen HaGadol, for it is specifically through his death that balance is restored.

The question is why?  Is Jewish jurisprudence to be reduced to the level of bloodthirsty cultist ritual?  Surely, we owe our faith more credit than that!

By way of explanation, HaRav Nagen cites lyrics from a popular Israeli ballad, Rikmah Enoshit Achat – Single Human Tissue.  “When I die, something from me dies within in you...for we are all indeed one living human tissue. And if one of us departs from among us, something dies within us.”  [R. Nagen’s exact quote below.] The Kohen Gadol represents each of us before Hashem.  This is especially true in context of our ability to achieve atonement on Yom Kippur.  He is a deeply beloved figure, following in the footsteps of Aharon HaKohen, a true peacemaker and man of the people.  His death, the loss of his blood, takes along a piece of the entire community – especially those who feel extra-dependent upon him for atonement.  The manslaughterer may rejoice in his freedom regained, but a piece of him departed with the Kohen Gadol.

This past week, the Klein family returned to Eretz Yisrael.  Watching movers load their belongings into a small brown Zim shipping container (with trademark magen-David logo) was a most bittersweet moment.  Perfect for the three weeks, actually.  Their four-year sojourn in galut was at an end and their departure is a painful reminder to the rest of us of where we remain – strangers in a strange land, albeit a land of blessings we dare not take for granted.  The Kleins’ move was no surprise, as Rav Avraham used to joke, “I hate to tell you, but we didn’t really move here for you!” The plan had always been to remain for a few years, and had they thought they might ‘get stuck,’ they never would have chanced yerida in the first place. 

Nonetheless, their departure feels a difficult loss for the broader Orthodox community.  Many are the reasons, but the one I wish to highlight is the role the Klein family played as bridge-builders.  Their position on shalom within the broader community was crystal clear from the time they arrived.  During my first interaction with Rav Avraham, I recall his suggesting various approaches to deepening communal harmony.  The advice was offered with characteristic humility and urgency.  Walking the streets of our St. Louis Park shtetl with the Kleins was a marvel as Dr. Rena seemed to recognize and greet everybody, as did Ateret, Shaked and Racheli.  Both Rav Avraham and Dr. Rena made their scholarship widely available, sharing shiurim whenever invited in addition to Rav Avraham’s weekly halachah sheets and occasional derashot. 

Their accomplishments during a mere four-year stay are an inspiring reminder of the tremendous impact one can make in a short time span.  Their departure is indeed a loss, but part of us remains with them as they return home.

Sadly, I must write this week of another loss, this one truly tragic.  A dear student I knew from Berkeley ten years ago lost his life tragically this past week.  He was a day shy of his 21st birthday on vacation with his family.  Dalia and I knew Yonim as a most delightful 10-year old, the epitome of derech eretz, kindness, curiosity, a free spirit who exhibited a most uncanny sense of spirituality well beyond his years. Yonim remained so throughout his teenage years.  His death literally knocked the wind out of his shul, day school, high school, ncsy, and yeshiva communities.  Yonim’s parents, grandparents, and four younger siblings are now saying Kaddish.  עַל-אֵלֶּה אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה, עֵינִי עֵינִי יֹרְדָה מַּיִם – “For these things I weep; mine eye, mine eye runneth down with water”, began the Rabbi’s message.  No one says it better than Jeremiah.

There is no full consolation for the loss of a loved one, especially G-d forbid, a child.  We can only pray that they are received before the throne of the Almighty, accompanied by a massive entourage, the ‘pieces’ of all the loved ones left behind.  Perhaps in that way, we can continue our bonds as mutual meilitzim (advocates) before Hashem.

- And may the Kleins arrive safely back home, completely and utterly weighted down by ‘pieces’ of us, a grateful and greater community.  We will move forward together through this bittersweet loss. Shabbat Shalom.

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