May 23, 2024
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May 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Perhaps one of the unique traits that the greats of our people exemplify, is that in their moments of simcha and success; they, nevertheless, still retain an awareness, sensitivity and sympathy, towards those who—unlike themselves—are undergoing difficult and compromising times.

When Yosef is taken down to Egypt, he begins working for Potiphar. Yosef may have been quite young, but he brought much success, so Potiphar promoted him to a position of authority. Rashi says that once Yosef was nominated to this position of authority, “He began to eat and drink and curl his hair. Hashem said, ‘Your father is mourning and you curl your hair? I will provoke the bear (Potiphar’s wife) against you!’” Yosef was seemingly enjoying his good fortune, and his moment of rising success and simcha. Eating, drinking and fashioning his hair! But, seemingly, because he didn’t give his attention to reflect upon and to feel the pain his father was experiencing, he was taken to task, and, as a result, experienced tremendous challenges from Potiphar’s wife.

We, perhaps, see from here, the level that the greats of our people were expected to be on: To still think about and connect to another person’s pain, despite oneself experiencing a time of success and joy.

In our parsha, we may see an even greater extent of this unique character: Our parsha discusses the case of an unintentional killer who is exiled to the “ir miklat”—the city of refuge. This killer remains in the ir miklat until the Kohen Gadol dies, upon which he achieves freedom (see 35:25, 28). Now, this is cause for concern for the Kohen Gadol. In fact, the mishna (Makkot 2:6) states that because of this, the mothers of the Kohanim Gedolim would supply the killers with food and clothing (in order to appease them) so that they (the killers) would not pray for their sons (i.e., the Kohanim Gedolim) to die. The implication is that these prayers could carry the potential to cause the Kohen Gadol’s demise, and, possibly, his “untimely” death.

But why should the killer’s term be dependent upon the Kohen Gadol’s death, thus putting the Kohen Gadol’s life at risk? What did the Kohen Gadol do to deserve this? The Gemara (Makkot, 11a) explains that the Kohen Gadol should have prayed for Hashem’s mercy that there be no unintentional deaths, and because he failed to do so, the inadvertent killer’s term is dependent upon his death, thus making the Kohen Gadol a potential subject to their prayers for his demise.

Yet, the mishnah (ibid) later states the following: “If the Kohen Gadol died (after the killing but) before the [killer] was sentenced (to exile), and they appointed another (Kohen Gadol) in his place, and then [the killer] was sentenced (to exile), he returns (from exile only) when the second (newly appointed Kohen Gadol) dies.”

Why, in this case, is the killer’s term contingent upon this second, newly-appointed Kohen Gadol’s death? How was he at fault, if he wasn’t even the Kohen Gadol at the time of the killing? Wasn’t the responsibility upon the previous Kohen Gadol—who was around at the time of the killing—to pray that such things not happen? The Gemara explains that (this newly-appointed Kohen Gadol is also at fault, for) he should have prayed that the killer’s sentence be finalized in his favor (to exonerate him from exile).

The novelty in this could, perhaps, be that not only is the Kohen Gadol supposed to pray regarding a more general and extreme context—i.e., that unintentional murders do not occur; from this case, however, it could be that this Kohen Gadol must also carry an even greater responsibility of praying regarding a more specific, personal and lesser extreme context—that the sentence of this unintentional murderer be finalized in his favor.

Rav Chaim Zaitchik expounds on this idea by painting the following picture: Imagine what it was like for Bnei Yisrael to lose their Kohen Gadol. The Kohen Gadol brought so much benefit for the nation as he was the one who would enter the Kodesh Kodashim—the Holy of Holies—on Yom Kippur and bring atonement for the transgressions of Bnei Yisrael. Thus, when the Kohen Gadol would die, this was a massive tragedy, and everyone was in utter distress and grief.

But then, a new Kohen Gadol is appointed! Imagine the relief, the joy and the excitement! What a happy time indeed—both for the people—and for the newly-nominated Kohen Gadol. However, as joyous of a time this may be, not everyone is in the greatest of spirits. Indeed, the lonely and isolated unintentional killer sits in potential worry, anticipating his sentence. He may be in anguish thinking about his possible, undesired sentence to exile: Will he get a favorable verdict and not have to face exile, or will he be sent away there, possibly for life?

And the verdict is … exile. And this newly-appointed Kohen Gadol is at fault. True, he was just appointed to such a remarkable and lofty status; true, it may be such a momentous and happy occasion for him; but that does not excuse him from doing all that he could have done for that isolated Jew, who was in a distressing situation. Despite all the exciting hustle bustle, he was expected not to divert his attention from even a single Jew who needed his help, but instead to be aware of what that one Jew was going through, and pray for him to try to save him from an unfortunate situation (see “Yechi Reuven,” Maasei, page 598).

Indeed, the entire nation may be in a state of ecstasy over the appointment of the new Kohen Gadol, and the Kohen Gadol might also be in a state of simcha over his nomination. And yet, for a person on his level—despite such good fortune and monumental advancement in his life—it was seemingly expected upon him to, nevertheless, give his attention, focus and sympathy to this unintentional killer and pray for his betterment—for a favorable judgment. During that time of rising success and joy, his mind and prayers should have been devoted to that lonely and distressed, unintentional killer.

We, perhaps, can learn from here, a level to strive to reach, where during our times of joy and success, and during our moments, where we “move up” in life, our hearts are still connected to our brethren in difficult situations, our sympathy is still retained for them and we are still thinking about what we can do to help—even that one, distressed and isolated, Jew.


Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan, and of Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

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