Cities of Refuge – Being Responsible for One Another
In this week’s Torah reading of Masei, Moshe is commanded to tell Yehoshua to set aside cities of refuge. Someone who kills another person unintentionally must flee to one of the cities of refuge before the deceased’s next of kin catch him or her.
A Beit Din sits at the entrance of the city to judge whether the death was unintentional or whether it was caused by negligence (in which case the city does not provide protection from the relatives).
Until the Cohen Gadol Dies
“For in the city of refuge he must remain until the death of the Cohen Gadol; after the death of the Cohen Gadol the murderer returns to the land of his inheritance,” (Bamidbar 35:28).
I can imagine that someone stuck in the city of refuge, waiting to return home, would perhaps hope and pray that the Cohen Gadol would die soon and release them from exile.
I guess this is part of the repentance for the accidental murderer. Having killed once unintentionally, perhaps it would seem like not such a big deal to pray for the death of someone else. Even someone as important as the Cohen Gadol.
A Mother’s Care
The Mishna (Makkot 2:6) relates that for this reason, the mother of the High Priest would bring gifts to those living in the cities of refuge.
“Therefore, the mothers of the Cohanim would provide them food and clothing, so that they should not pray for their children to die.”
The Talmud (Makkot 11a) asks why the mothers were worried about those prayers. There is no punishment without sin. If the Cohen had done nothing wrong, the prayers would have no effect. A verse states, “A baseless cause shall not come true,” (Mishlei 26:2).
The answer in the Talmud is that “They should have prayed for their generation but did not.”
The Responsibility of Leadership
The Cohen Gadol was more than just a figurehead. He was the person who effected repentance for the entire nation every Yom Kippur. He would bring the sacrifices, send the scapegoat to Azazel, enter the Holy of Holies, and by the end of the day, the nation would be absolved of its sins.
And as a leader of the nation, he was responsible for everything that happened. It was up to him to set an example for everyone else, to act in a way that would build up the character of the nation. He could not shirk his responsibility.
He was held so responsible that even a single unintentional death anywhere in the country would have earned him Divine punishment.
Not Only the Cohen Gadol
After the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis extended this responsibility of leadership to anyone in a position of authority (Makkot 11a).
“A person was eaten by a lion three parsangs from Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, and Eliyahu the Prophet did not speak with him for three days.”
We Are All Responsible for One Another
I would even go further and say that each of us, even if not in an official position of leadership, has a responsibility to protect others from harm.
In 1995, a severe heatwave hit Chicago, leading to 739 deaths. Eric Klinenberg showed in his book, “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago” that people living in neighborhoods and communities with strong social infrastructure had a much better chance of surviving the heat. That is just one example where being connected with one another literally saved lives.
The Cohen Gadol was held responsible for not preventing deaths. Conversely, by caring for those around us, in person, through phone calls or online, each of us has the potential to prevent unnecessary deaths and save lives.