Mishpatim / Shekalim 5778

Seeking refuge[1]

ואשר לא צדה והאלקים אנה לידו ושמתי לך מקום אשר ינוס שמה
If he didn’t plan to kill [his victim], but G-d caused it to happen, then I will provide for you a place for [the killer] to find refuge[2]

There is a law in the Torah[3] that someone who unintentionally kills another Jew, must be exiled to one of the six cities of refuge in the land of Israel. This serves two purposes: to protect the killer from the vengeance of the deceased’s family[4], who will find it difficult to not take the law into their own hands, and to provide a spiritual atonement for this accidental sin[5]. However, this exile isn’t necessarily forever. It’s until the death of the Kohen Gadol. Once he dies, the inadvertent killer goes free[6]. These cities of refuge only protect the killer when all six cities are established[7]. Moshe, towards the end of his life, established the three cities on the other side of the Jordan River[8]. He knew he wouldn’t merit to enter the land of Israel proper to finish the job; nevertheless, he didn’t refrain from starting the mitzvah[9]. Yehoshua, his successor, after fourteen years of conquest and dividing the land of Israel, established the final three[10]. It comes out from this that for those fourteen years, someone who accidentally killed another, had no safe haven. They were vulnerable that whole time. Why didn’t the Torah provide them refuge as well[11]?

A possible answer is based on the above law that the death of the Kohen Gadol frees the killer. Why was this so? The gemarra explains[12] that as one of the leaders of the generation, he was expected to pray that mishaps such as these shouldn’t befall the Jewish people. Since someone was accidentally killed, it shows that the Kohen Gadol didn’t pray enough. He is considered to bear partial responsibility. Therefore, the Torah made the killer’s freedom contingent on the death of the Kohen Gadol. Since Elazar, the son of Moshe’s brother Aharon, was the Kohen Gadol during this time, there is no doubt that he fulfilled his duties properly. He prayed sufficiently such that during those fourteen years, no one was accidentally killed. Therefore, no one needed refuge or exile.

However, this explanation creates a difficulty. The gemarra makes an inference[13] from the wording from the above verse, ושמתי לך מקום אשר ינוס שמה, literally: I will provide for you a place that he will run to. “For you” shows that Hashem was speaking to Moshe; meaning, the cities of refuge will be for during his lifetime. We learn from here that there were Jews who went into exile during the forty years they traveled in the wilderness. The place they were exiled to was the Levite camp (similar to the future cities of refuge which belonged to the Leviim)[14]. During that time Aharon was the Kohen Gadol. If his son’s prayers were potent enough to prevent any such mishap, surely Aharon’s own prayers should been sufficient. How could it be that people had accidentally killed others, and were thus sentenced to exile?

The Arizal provides[15] a fascinating explanation. While still a prince in Egypt, Moshe had killed[16] an Egyptian[17] taskmaster who was beating a fellow Jew[18]. Moshe was judged to be an inadvertent killer[19], and was thus required to go to exile[20]. Hashem, as a chesed to Moshe, provided him with a place of refuge: the Levite camp[21] [22] [23]. Based on this, there’s no longer a question. After the fourteen years of conquest, the six cities of refuge were established for any future accidental killers. During the Jews’ time in the wilderness, Aharon and his son Elazar were successful at praying that no tragedy should occur. Therefore, no one needed to go to exile or seek refuge. Even though the gemarra says that people went to a place of refuge even in the wilderness, this is not a contradiction. Only Moshe, who previously killed the Egyptian, had the need for this safe haven. Besides him, no one inadvertently killed.

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on Be’er Yosef to Numbers 35:13-14 (which is highly relevant to this week’s parsha)

[2] Exodus 21:13, translation loosely based on The Living Torah ad. loc

[3] It comes up in various places. One is the above-mentioned verse, and another is Numbers 35:9-34

[4] Ibid verse 25

[5] Makkos 2b

[6] Numbers 35:25, 28; Makkos 2:6

[7] Makkos 9b

[8] Deuteronomy 4:41

[9] Makkos 10a relates that he said: “a mitzvah that comes my way, how can I not fulfill it?”

[10] Rashi to Makkos 9b, based on Joshua Chapter 20

[11] I don’t know why the Be’er Yosef at this stage wasn’t bothered by the lack of refuge during the forty years in the wilderness

[12] Makkos 11a

[13] ibid 12b, brought by Rashi to Exodus loc. cit.

[14] The Be’er Yosef rejects the possibility that the Levite camp served as a place of refuge during the fourteen years of conquest, as by then the Leviim along with the other Jews were scattered throughout the land

[15] Sha’ar HaPesukim, parshas Mishpatim

[16] Using the forty-two-letter name of Hashem

[17] The Arizal says that the Egyptian was Kayin, the son of Adam. Presumably he means a reincarnation of Kayin

[18] Exodus 2:12

[19] Moshe wanted to rectify Kayin’s soul by killing him with the forty-two-letter name. In Sha’ar HaMitzvos, parshas Shoftim the Arizal says, quoting Raya Mehemnah (see note 20), that this was considered a sin on Moshe’s part, since for some reason it wasn’t Kayin’s time to be killed. Since Moshe thought he was doing the right thing, he was considered equivalent to an inadvertent killer. Although I don’t fully understand why that would be so

[20] This is based on the Zohar, Raya Mehemnah parshas Mishpatim pekudah chadah. Rav Shmuel Vital, in his notes on the Arizal, points out that this idea is also hinted to in the verse itself: אשר ינוס שמה has the starting letters איש, which is a reference to Moshe (Exodus 32:1). Also, the word שמה has the same letters as Moshe. The Arizal and Zohar explain that the goel hadam, the avenger of the deceased that Moshe killed, was the Angel of Eisav, also known as the primordial snake, and included his whole legion. It is unclear why they specifically would want to avenge Kayin

[21] The Arizal and Zohar only discuss Hashem’s command to create the three cities of refuge on the other side of the Jordan. They were to protect Moshe from the Angel of Eisav. However, the Be’er Yosef infers from Makkos loc. cit. (see note 23), that Hashem also provided the Levite camp as a place of refuge for Moshe during their time in the wilderness. It’s unclear to me why 1) Moshe didn’t need protection during his sixty years in Midian and until the Levite camps were formed and 2) how the three cities Moshe established could provide refuge, if as explained above all six need to be established to function and 3) why according to the Arizal and Zohar, Moshe only set up a place for protection at the end of his life and not earlier. I feel the Be’er Yosef’s inference is easier to comprehend.

[22] How is Moshe going to the Levite camp considered going into exile? He was a Levi! Perhaps it means like Makkos loc. cit. says, that someone in exile who kills again must change neighborhoods in their city of refuge. Moshe must have had to change where he lived in the Levite camp

[23] The Be’er Yosef infers this from the gemarra’s derasha that ושמתי לך, בחייך, I placed for you, for your life. To protect Moshe’s life from the Angel of Eisav, Hashem made the cities of refuge