SALT - Motzaei Shabbat, July 7, 2018

  • Rav David Silverberg
            The Torah in Parashat Masei introduces the law of ir miklat – the cities of refuge where accidental killers would find protection from vengeful relatives of the victim.  As the Torah clearly emphasizes (35:32), residence in a city of refuge is not an optional means of protection for the killer, but an outright requirement; the killer is obligated to relocate to an ir miklat and remain there until the death of the kohen gadol
The Gemara in Masekhet Makkot (11a) famously comments that this law serves as a punishment for the kohen gadol, who is held responsible on some level for the tragedy that occurred.  The kohen gadol is expected to regularly pray for the wellbeing of the entire nation, and thus an accidental murder is, to some extent, attributable to the kohen gadol’s failure.  When such a tragedy occurs, the Torah arranged a situation whereby accidental killers would be forced into exile and would then want to pray for the kohen gadol’s death so they could return to their homes.
            Later (11b), the Gemara takes note of the unusual manner in which the Torah here refers to the kohen gadol, stating that the killer must remain in an ir miklat “until the death of the high priest whom he anointed with the sacred oil” (35:25).  This refers to the formal anointing procedure which was followed when a new kohen gadol assumed the post, which included placing special anointing oil on the new kohen gadol’s head.  However, the Gemara observes that the phrase “asher mashach oto” (“whom he anointed”) could be understood to mean that the accidental killer is the one who anointed the kohen gadol – which is clearly not the case.  The Gemara therefore reads this verse as alluding to a case where a new kohen gadol is appointed after the murder, but before the killer was sentenced to exile in an ir miklat.  The phrase “asher mashach oto” implies that the kohen gadol was anointed after the killer committed his negligent act, thus instructing that even in such a case, the killer must relocate and remain in an ir miklat until the death of the newly-appointed kohen gadol.  (The Gemara then raises the question of why the new kohen gadol is deserving of punishment in such a case, given that the mishap occurred before his appointment to the post of kohen gadol.)
            Rav Avraham Saba, in his Tzeror Ha-mor, suggests an additional dimension to this reference to the kohen gadol, one which seeks to explain why the Torah found it necessary to mention the kohen gadol’s appointment in the first place.  He writes that the kohen gadol is blamed precisely because he failed to recognize that each and every individual member of the nation appointed him as kohen gadol.  The phrase “asher mashach oto,” Rav Saba explains, should be taken in its most literal sense – to mean that this accidental killer actually appointed the kohen gadol to his post.  If a person rises to a position of leadership or public service, he must view himself as having been directly appointed by, and thus directly accountable to, each person under his or her charge.  If the kohen gadol failed to adequately pray for the people’s wellbeing, this is likely because of the disconnect he sensed between him and the commoners, because he felt naturally entitled to his position and not answerable to the people.  The tragedy of an accidental murder is thus attributed to the kohen gadol, who is to view each and every member of the nation as his personal “boss” to whom he is responsible and whose needs he must care for through his prayer and devoted service in the Beit Ha-mikdash.