The Torah in Parashat Masei commands Benei Yisrael to designate six arei miklat – cities of refuge for the protection of inadvertent killers who might otherwise be targeted by angry relatives of the victims. In such a case, the killer is not only invited to find refuge in an ir miklat, but is required to relocate and settle in the city, and to remain there until the death of the kohen gadol (35:25,32).
The Mishna in Masekhet Makkot (11b) emphasizes that the killer must remain in the city even if he is an important and distinguished figure, going so far as to establish that he may not leave “even if all Israel needs him, like Yoav the son of Tzeruya” – referring to the famous general who served under King David and was indispensable to Benei Yisrael’s military prowess during that period. The Rambam brings this halakha in Hilkhot Rotzei’ach (7:8), adding that the killer may not leave “even to save a life through his testimony or to save [somebody] from an idolater, a river, a fire or a collapsed building.”
Rav Meir Simcha Ha-kohen of Dvinsk, in his Meshekh Chokhma commentary (Bamidbar 35:28), suggests a possible explanation for why Halakha goes so far in its refusal to allow for even the temporary release of an inadvertent killer from the ir miklat. The concern, Rav Meir Simcha explains, is that if the killer is temporarily released, he might scheme to assassinate the kohen gadol so he could then return home. Since his “sentence” ends only with the death of the kohen gadol, the inadvertent killer has a clear motive to try to kill the kohen gadol, and for this reason he is not permitted to leave for any reason, even temporarily.
This theory proposed by the Meshekh Chokhma might answer a question that was asked regarding a different Mishna in Masekhet Makkot about the law of ir miklat. Earlier (11a), the Mishna relates that it became customary for the kohen gadol’s mother to occasionally visit the cities of refuge and bring gifts of food and clothing to the inadvertent killers residing there. This was done, the Mishna explains, in an effort to win these people’s favor so they would not pray for the death of the kohen gadol. It was felt that by receiving free gifts from the kohen gadol’s mother, the inadvertent killers would look kindly upon the kohen gadol and thus not wish for his death so they could return home. Many commentators raised the question of why the kohen gadol’s mother brought the gifts, instead of the kohen gadol himself. In light of the Meshekh Chokhma’s comments, we might answer that this is simply a matter of concern for the kohen gadol’s safety. The group of inadvertent killers sentenced to remain in an ir miklat until the kohen gadol’s death may include potentially violent individuals who could go so far as resort to murder in order to be permitted to return home. Therefore, for the sake of the kohen gadol’s protection, he did not personally deliver the gifts, and this was done by his mother, instead. (Incidentally, the more common answer for why the kohen gadol did not bring the gifts is that this would encourage unscrupulous, needy people to falsely claim to have killed inadvertently so they could relocate in an ir miklat and receive these free gifts of food and clothing. Now that the kohen gadol’s mother delivers the gifts, this scheme would not work, as the mother would likely die many years before the kohen gadol, and then the fraudster would be stuck in the ir miklat without the benefit of free gifts.)
(Taken from Yeshivat Mir’s Beit Midrash, Shabbat Parashat Matot-Masei, 5777)