The Torah in Parashat Masei introduces the law requiring somebody who accidentally killed another person to relocate in an ir miklat – one of the designated cities of refuge – and live there until the kohen gadol’s death (35:28). The killer would stand trial before a court, which would determine whether he killed intentionally, in which case he is liable to execution, or if he killed inadvertently, in which case they would determine whether he is guilty of negligence that requires his relocation in an ir miklat. As we saw yesterday, the Gemara (Makkot 11a) understood that the Torah here punishes the kohen gadol for failing to pray on the people’s behalf. The fact that such a tragedy could occur is attributable, at least in part, to the kohen gadol’s inadequate prayers, and so the Torah arranged that inadvertent killers would feel inclined to pray for the kohen gadol to die so they could return home.
The Mishna in Masekhet Makkot (11b) discusses the interesting case where the kohen gadol dies, whereupon his post is filled by his successor, in between an inadvertent murder and the court’s verdict. One might have assumed that since the kohen gadol who served at the time of murder is no longer alive, the killer is not required to relocate in an ir miklat. After all, the new kohen gadol should not be held accountable for this misfortune, which occurred before he assumed the post of high priest, and thus he should not deserve to have this inadvertent killer pray for his life to end. The Mishna, however, rules that the killer in this case must reside in an ir miklat and remain there until the passing of the new kohen gadol. The Gemara raises the question of why this kohen gadol deserves this situation, given that he rose to this position only after the accidental murder took place. As it cannot be blamed in any way on the new kohen gadol, it would seem unfair to have the killer relocate in an ir miklat and hope for the new kohen gadol’s death. The Gemara answers, surprisingly, that the kohen gadol is, in fact, partially responsible, because he should have prayed that the court would acquit the killer. The kohen gadol is expected to pray not only that tragic accidents won’t happen, but also that an inadvertent killer standing trial to determine whether he must relocate in an ir miklat would be declared by the court fully innocent. Therefore, the new kohen gadol is held partially responsible for the situation.
Many writers have raised the question of why the kohen gadol would be expected to recite such a prayer. It would certainly seem that if the individual is indeed guilty of negligence such that he deserves to be exiled to a city of refuge, the court should issue such a sentence. On a symbolic level, however, notwithstanding this question, there is much to learn from the Gemara’s comment regarding the role of the kohen gadol and about religious leadership generally. The Gemara here teaches that part of the role of the kohen gadol is to inspire “limud zekhut,” favorable judgment of people. He is expected to set an example of goodwill and positivity, of focusing on the goodness of all people rather than on their negative qualities. Many leaders seek to cement their position by rallying support through negativity, highlighting the unseemly qualities of their prospective opponents. The kohen gadol’s role is to “pray for an acquittal,” to spread positivity throughout the nation so that people judge each other favorably and avoid accusations and finger-pointing. No less important than the kohen gadol’s work inside the Beit Ha-mikdash is the influence he is to exert well beyond the Temple, inspiring the nation to view and judge one another kindly, compassionately and sympathetically, and to accustom themselves to declaring one another “innocent” as much as possible, rather than rush to find fault, criticize and cast blame.