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Corrupting the agency of atonement

Written by d fine

By the time we get to parshas Mattos it is clear that Bnei Yisrael are on the verge of entering Eretz Yisrael. Most of the sedra deals with preparations and laws of the Land; HaShem delineates the borders of the Land, there is a summary of the journeys we have undertaken from Egypt until now, we are told to set aside cities of refuge (for someone who kills unintentionally) and cities for the leviim, and the sedra ends with certain rules about inheriting the land and who will do the job of apportioning it amongst Bnei Yisrael. The only part of the sedra that does not have an open reference to Eretz Yisrael is the first section – vows. [It is indeed a question what this topic is doing in a sedra full of preparations to enter the Land…perhaps we will leave that for next year, iy’H]

Our topic this week concerns the cities of refuge. In short, if one unintentionally kills someone else, they run off to one of the six cities of refuge where they are given halachic protection from the go’el hadam – someone who is permitted to avenge the killing by killing the ‘murderer’ as long as the ‘murderer’ is outside the city of refuge. Actually, the forty two cities of the leviim also served as cities of refuge – with two differences from the six cities of refuge set aside specifically for this task. Firstly, to be ‘saved/protected’ within the

levite city one had to have explicit intention to be saved, whilst the protection of the city of refuge was automatic. Also, whereas the cities of refuge provided free hospitality, this was not the case if one chose to run off to a leviite city to be saved. [More or less like NHS and private healthcare!] This unintentional ‘killer’ is to remain in the city of refuge until the kohen gadol dies (35;25). In fact, the mishna tells us that the mother of the kohen gadol would bring food and clothing to those who were in the cities of refuge so that they would not daven for her son to die so that they could leave (makkos 11a). [I’m not one to criticise, but it seems that there is something to be learnt from the fact that the kohen gadol’s mother-in-law did not bother doing the same!]
What happens if the person who he unintentionally killed was the kohen gadol himself? The mishna in makkos (11b) states that if one unintentionally kills the kohen gadol himself then he is never allowed to go free. Why is this? The Ritva there explains a reason for this Torah law that ‘this sin is very stringent’ (“she’ha’avon chamur me’od”). However, this itself requires an explanation; why is it so much a more stringent and strict sin to kill the kohen gadol than to kill any other person – after all we are talking about precisely unintentional killing here, so the sin is not as punishable and grave anyway?
The full explanation is given by the mishne lemelech in his sefer ‘parshas derachim’ (derech harabim drush 13). He points out that the severity of this sin lies in its results. Normally, one who kills unintentionally is allowed to go free from the city of refuge when the kohen gadol dies – the kohen gadol is thus the ‘mechaper’ (instrument of atonement) for this person. If, however, the kohen gadol was the one who was killed unintentionally, then one has simply brought in the mechaper as an element of one’s sin, and so the death of a kohen gadol can no longer act as atonement for you. In other words, since you ‘corrupted’ the instrument of atonement, this atonement can no longer work for you – and the result is that this unintentional killer remains in the city of refuge forever.
We find other examples of the same idea. The shulchan aruch (orach chaim 124;7) paskens that one who talks during the repetition of the amidah is sinning and ‘his sin is too great to bear.’ In fact, the tosafos yom tov saw this sin as the cause of the terrible Chmelnitzki Cossak massacres of the Jews in gezeiras tach ve’tat (1648-9) to the extent that he composed a special ‘misheberach’ for those who do not talk during davening – which can be found in some siddurim before mussaf on Shabbes. Why should it be that of all the sins the shulchan aruch picks this one out as one that is ‘too great to bear?’ Rav Mattisyahu Salomon explains that essentially the above principle of the mishneh lamelech applies here as well. It might be that we are deserving of certain punishments or there have been plots against us to endanger us. Tefillah removes such threats and helps to foil the dangers; just as occurred in yetzias mitzrayim when the start of the redemption is detailed by HaShem as ‘I heard the cries of Bnei Yisrael’ (Shemos 6;5). Thus, it is not that the sin of speaking during the amidah itself alone is ‘too great to bear’ and caused the tach vetat massacres, but rather that if one shows disregard for the mechaper (tefillah) then the mechaper does not work for us – the plots are not foiled and the danger is not averted; the results are thus something which is too great to bear.
Similar to this is the mishna (yoma 85b) which says that if one goes ahead and sins because they later plan to do teshuva on that sin, or because yom kippur will aid atonement for that sin, then this prevents teshuva and yom kippur indeed does not atone here. Again, the explanation lies in the fact that here one has corrupted the agency of atonement (teshuva and yom kippur) by bringing them into the sin itself. Since they used teshuv and yom kippur as an excuse and motivation to sin, these agencies of atonement do not readily perform their task of atonement for you (sfas emes).
These concept is illustrated by an unfortunately true story that occurred some time ago in Liverpool. A father came to the Rabbi of Liverpool (the Rabbi might have been Rabbi Unterman, but I am not sure), expressing his sorrow that his daughter had been dating a non-Jewish boy and they had just agreed to get married.

He asked the Rabbi to have a meeting with his daughter and sit down and talk to her about how she should marry a Jewish boy. The Rabbi agreed, and sat with the girl trying to talk her round, but to no avail – the daughter was not dissuaded and planned to continue her wedding plans. The disappointed father came back to the Rabbi, accusing him of not trying hard enough.

The Rabbi’s reply went roughly as follows: ‘I shall tell you a parable that I once heard from the Chafetz Chaim in person:

There was a man whose daughter suddenly became very ill and needed urgent medical assistance. A doctor was rushed from a nearby town, but when he arrived he did not have the correct medicine to administer. Suddenly, the doctor looked up at this man and exclaimed ‘You!

You are the one who robbed me!’ It turned out that a week earlier this doctor had been doing his rounds when a masked assailant held a knife to him and robbed him of all the medicines he had been carrying round with him. This robber was none other than the person who had the ill daughter, and so he was the cause of the doctor’s ‘lack’ of appropriate medicine that day.’ ‘You, too,’ said the Rabbi of Liverpool to this father ‘had ridiculed me and my sermons in front of your family during family meals for a while;

what chance did I have to convince your daughter to abandon her wedding plans if you had already planted the idea in her mind that the Rabbi is not someone to be listened to or respected?

Just like the Chafetz Chaim’s parable, you stole the medicine here and the unfortunate result seems like your daughter will not be cured.’

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