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Release From City of Refuge

Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1 )

by Rabbi Ozer Alport

The Torah requires (Numbers 35:28) a person who accidentally kills another Jew to flee to one of the cities of refuge. In order to be protected from the deceased's relative and blood-avenger, he must remain there until the death of the Kohen Gadol, at which point he is permitted to return to his community and family. Meshech Chochmah derives from our verse that although this law was applicable during the 40-year sojourn of the Jews in the wilderness, with the accidental killer required to dwell in the camp of the Levites (Rashi - Exodus 21:13), an accidental killing never actually occurred during this entire period.

The Torah (Numbers 20:29) relates that upon the death of Aharon, every member of the Jewish nation cried and mourned his death. Rashi explains that this was due to his tremendous efforts to make peace between quarreling parties. Meshech Chochmah notes, however, that had there been even a single accidental murderer during this period, he wouldn't have cried at the death of Aharon - the Kohen Gadol - but rather would have rejoiced at the event which secured his freedom!

However, Matamei Yaakov questions this proof. It is entirely possible that there was an accidental killer who was exiled to the Levite camp but who died prior to the death of Aharon, which occurred during the last year of their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness. As such, the fact that at the time of Aharon's death every living Jew mourned his passing doesn't constitute an absolute indication that there were no accidental killings during this period.

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On a literal level, the cumbersome verse Numbers 21:27 discusses the battles between two of the non-Jewish peoples who lived at this time and commemorates the victory of one over the other. However, the Talmud (Bava Basra 78b) homiletically reinterprets our verse as coming to teach an important life lesson in values and priorities. The Talmud explains that the verse can be read as quoting not rulers over kingdoms, but rather rulers over their own base instincts and evil inclinations.

What is the message of these masters of self-control? They advise that a person make a reckoning of the reward for performing a mitzvah versus the loss incurred by doing so, and the potential gain from sinning relative to its downside.

The Talmud concludes that these individuals promise that somebody who makes the appropriate calculation will be built in this world and well-established in the World to Come. While it is certainly understandable that a person who righteously makes such a reckoning will be well-compensated in the next world, in what way does he tangibly benefit from doing so in this world?

Rabbi Shalom Schwadron was once giving a speech on this very topic when a man approached him at the end of the lecture and related a story which answers our question. The man was an old Russian Jew, and his story took place just before the rise to power of the Communists. At that time, the Jews in Russia felt secure, and the man had a lucrative job in the jewelry business.

One day he was going to work a bit early when he heard somebody calling to complete a minyan so that a person could say the Mourner's Kaddish on the yahrtzeit of one of his relatives. Because he had a few minutes to spare, he agreed to be the tenth man. Much to his chagrin, when he entered the room, he saw only five other men. When he turned to leave, the man with yahrtzeit begged him to stay a few more minutes until the minyan could be completed.

After much time, the real tenth man was found, but the jeweler was fuming at the thought of all of the money he was losing in missed business deals. Still, he assumed that there would be one quick Kaddish and then it would be all over. He was left speechless when the man with yahrtzeit proceeded to start from the very beginning of the prayer service. As they had only an exact minyan, the jeweler had no choice but to remain hostage, growing more livid by the moment. When the service was finally over, he angrily ran toward his office. When he got there, he was informed that that very morning the Bolsheviks had attacked and ransacked the building, killing most of the Jews in the process. If he hadn't stayed to allow another Jew to say Kaddish, his kids would be saying Kaddish for him!

Many times in life we are confronted with dilemmas between what we known deep down is the right thing to do and what we want to do to get ahead and have what appears to be more fun in this world. The next time we are faced with such a choice, we should follow the advice of the rulers to make a calculation and to realize that by making the right decision, we stand to gain not only in the next world but also in this one.

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Moshe stripped Aharon of the garments of the Kohen Gadol and dressed Elazar in them inside the cave (Numbers 20:28), as God had commanded him to do, thus inaugurating Elazar as the Kohen Gadol. As a Kohen Gadol is forbidden to become ritually impure even upon the death of his immediate relatives, how was Elozar permitted to remain in the cave in which Aharon died, thus rendering Elazar impure?

Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman (Ayeles HaShachar) notes that Baal HaTurim seems to imply that Elazar didn't become the Kohen Gadol until after he was anointed, in which case he was permitted to be present at Aharon's death.

S'fas Emes (Kerisos 5) maintains that Elazar did not need an additional anointing since he had already been anointed during the seven days of the consecration of the Mishkan.

However, Nachmanides explains (19:2) that contact with those who died through a Divine "kiss" doesn't cause impurity. Since Aharon died in this manner, Elazar could be present even if he was already the Kohen Gadol.

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Magen Avraham writes (Orach Chaim 580:9) that it is the custom of pious individuals to fast on the Erev Shabbos preceding Parshas Chukas in observance of a tragic event which occurred on that day. On this day in the year 1244, 24 cartloads of the Talmud and other holy books were publicly burned in France due to allegations of heretical and rebellious teachings contained therein.

Rabbi Hillel of Verona, a student of Rabbeinu Yonah, writes that his illustrious teacher noted that just 40 days prior to this episode, the Jews had publicly burned in that very spot a number of copies of the controversial philosophical writings of Maimonides. Rabbeinu Yonah saw in this tragedy Divine punishment being meted out for their actions, and he viewed it as a Heavenly message supporting the legitimacy of the teachings of Maimonides. The Jews of the time repented their actions and prayed for Divine forgiveness, thus ending the bitter controversy over the philosophical views of Maimonides.

Although fasts commemorating historical events are normally established on the calendar date on which they occurred - in this case 9 Tammuz - the rabbis of the time mystically inquired regarding the nature of the decree, and received the cryptic reply- "this is the decree of the Torah." This expression is taken from Onkelos' Aramaic translation of the second verse in Parshas Chukas (Numbers 19:2). They interpreted this message as alluding that the decree was connected to the day's proximity to the reading of Parshas Chukas, so they established the fast specifically on the Erev Shabbos preceding the reading of Parshas Chukas.

Magen Avraham concludes by noting that in the terrible pogroms that occurred in the years Tach V'Tat (1648-9), two entire Jewish communities were brutally destroyed on the Erev Shabbos preceding Parshas Chukas.


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