In ancient times, if a person killed someone else accidentally, a trial could sentence the perpetrator to exile in a city of refuge, for a term that would last until the death of the kohen gadol.
The Sifrei explains: The kohen gadol was supposed to bring G-d’s presence to the people, and lengthening their lives. The murderer, obviously, shortens life. This is why he may not be in the presence of the kohen gadol. But why should his freedom be tied to the kohen gadol’s death?
The Sages teach that the death of the righteous, particularly the kohen gadol, brings atonement.
Rosh Chodesh Av, this year on Friday July 13, is the yahrzeit of the first kohen gadol, Aharon HaKohen. And every year, as his yahrzeit ushers in the Nine Days, we are reminded of how desperately we need a kohen gadol.
Who cares if his death brings atonement? Does he deserve to die to set a murderer free, albeit an accidental one?
The Talmud in Makkot suggests that the kohen gadol’s death is connected to the accidental murderer’s freedom because he shares the blame. Had he been in tune with the needs of his people, no senseless deaths would have occurred. It also tells us that the kohen gadol’s mother would bring treats and sweets to the exiles so they would not pray for her son’s death, or so they would pray that he not die.
The two views are very different, but they leave us with the same question. If the kohen gadol’s mother inspired them to pray that her son not die, her investment would be worth the while. If they refrained from praying for his death, there might not be an added push from G-d to end his life. But in either case, why would they listen to her? If they wanted to go home, his life had to end!
This passage teaches us a valuable lesson about prayer. In one line of thinking, the kohen gadol’s insufficient prayer causes all of this to happen. His inability to inspire the people created a spiritual void that opens the door for accidental murder. Is he deserving of death for this? No. But he is responsible for not being a stronger spiritual presence in the lives of the masses.
His mother is concerned about the prayers — even of murderers. As to why she might have asked people to pray that her son not die, and why they might have listened, perhaps her seeing the desperation of the prisoners would make her think “My son deserves to die! But I don’t want to lose him!” And they, in turn, seeing this sad and pathetic woman, might have a change of heart.
Maybe she wanted them to not pray for her son to die, and maybe, as a favor, they complied. Maybe they continued to pray, but not as wholeheartedly.
Or maybe when she came to the city and saw vengeful relatives waiting outside, biding their time until the murderer stepped out of his refuge and made himself a target, maybe this tugged at her heartstrings. Until her son died, they would have a free pass to kill the accidental murderers. In other words warranted, justified and unpunishable killing could continue as long as her son was alive.
What a burden to bear!
I don’t envy the kohen gadol’s mother, faced with wanting her son to live while witnessing misery that could only end with his death.
But perhaps we are missing an even deeper lesson. Maybe there is no causality in terms of the kohen gadol’s death. The Sforno tells us that G-d sends people into exile with careful timing, based on how long they need to be there and when the kohen gadol is going to die anyway.
Prayer has its place in the world, and even when it doesn’t impact the here and now, it is stored for a time and place when it will. If the death of the righteous brings atonement, perhaps it is because we unite in mourning, pushing grievances aside.
The murderers don’t cause the death of the kohen gadol. Each individual serves the time he is meant to in G-d’s Master Plan. And the people are united again when they appreciate the magnitude of their loss.
With the Nine Days upon us, we must once again unite in prayer, and unite in mourning what has been missing for two millennia — Judaism, practiced in its most raw and most Torah-based form.
G-d’s Master Plan is not for us to figure out. But hopefully, we will merit to see this time turned into a time of joy, with a kohen gadol uniting us all the wings of G-d.