Mattos & Maasei – Always Watch Your Back and Your Friend’s Back

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This week is the double portion of Mattos and Maasei, and it also concludes Sefer Bamidbar. In Mattos we find the Jewish people waging battle against the Midianites out of revenge for causing 24,000 Jews to perish in sin at the end of Parshas Balak. They were victorious in battle and collected many spoils from the war. We actually learn the laws of kashering utensils from this portion because of all the utensils collected from the non-Jewish Midianites after the war. Hashem told Moshe, “Divide the spoils in half, between those who undertook the battle, who go out to the legions, and the entire assembly. You shall raise up a tribute to Hashem from the men of war who go out to the legion, one living being of 500, from the people, from the cattle, from the donkeys and from the flocks” (Bamidbar 31:27-28). When the leaders of the army approached Moshe, “They said to Moshe, ‘Your servants took a census of the men of war under our command, and not one man of us is missing. So we brought an offering to Hashem: what any man found of gold vessels, anklet and bracelet, ring, earring, clasp, to stone for our souls before Hashem” (Bamidbar 31:49-50).

 There is a very valuable lesson the Ralbag learned from here. “One who has received good from Hashem should recognize that good and thank Hashem for it because this will help not to forget Hashem. For this reason, the Torah tells us that the ministers of the 1000s and 100s donated a lot of gold vessels to Hashem for all the good He did for them, that not one person died in battle. For this reason also, Moshe required that they themselves bring all the gifts to the Tent of Meeting to leave it there for the incredible wonder that took place. For this reason also, Hashem commanded them to take a portion of the gifts to Hashem from the spoils to the Kohanim and Leviim to show them that all this incredible good came to them from Hashem and not due to their own power and strength.” 
(Click here for Hebrew text.)

 The leaders of the army felt humbled by the show of care and love that Hashem had for his children, and not one was killed or captured in the war with the Midianites. They had heartfelt gratitude towards Hashem for the miracles that had happened to them, so they felt a need to give back and to donate a chunk of the spoils to Hashem. The donations were publicized and placed at the entrance of the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting) to enhance the gratitude towards Hashem. Hashem felt it was important that He had to give part of the gifts to the Kohanim and Leviim just to humiliate them by giving away part of the gifts so that there was no room to think that they could give themselves credit for the victory. (Parenthetically an interesting concept comes from this that repackaging gifts and giving them to other people is an embarrassment to the first giver if they find out what you did, so you should be sensitive of that matter). But why did Hashem feel he had to humiliate these donors in this way? Weren’t they clearly showing that they attributed 100% of their success to Hashem?

It must be that there is always room for the trait of haughtiness to slip in and every angle must be taken to avoid it, without any excuse. Hashem felt personally responsible to do this and not leave it up to free choice, for the leaders to choose to work on themselves to stay humble, since He would be the cause of them feeling this haughtiness potentially.

Mattos/Massei – Accepting Responsibility for Negligence

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The second perek of Maseches Makkos is dedicated to the accidental murderer who has the right to run away to a city of refuge in order that he will not be killed by the goel hadam, the avenger of blood, a relative of the deceased. There is an argument between Rebbe Yossi HaGlili and Rebbe Akiva in the 7th Mishna of the perek as to whether the family member of the deceased gets a mitzvah for killing the accidental murderer and whether anyone else is allowed to commit the same murder – or if only a family member is allowed to kill the accidental murderer. It is implicit from the first Mishna and in the gemara with Rashi there that this accidental murderer, while he certainly had no intention of killing an innocent party, the act was not completely out of his control. Indeed,  he would not need to run away to a city of refuge but rather there must have been some level of negligence on his part, as he could have been more careful with what he was handling or more aware of his surroundings, and because of that he must run away and live his life in a city of refuge in order for himself not to be killed. Mishna 6 explains how this accidental murderer can eventually leave a city of refuge and go back home, namely upon the death of a kohen gadol; whether he was serving as kohen gadol at the time of his death, stepped down at the time as kohen gadol, or was the kohen appointed to lead the army into war; if any of them die he goes free. For this matter the Mishna says that the mothers of these kohanim would give food, drink and clothing to these accidental killers in order that they wouldn’t daven for the demise of their son.  The gemara in Makkos daf 11a asks why we would think the prayers of these accidental killers would be listened to since they are asking for such an accursed thing as the kohen gadol dying just so that they could go home? The gemara answers that in fact the Kohen gadol deserves this because they should have davened harder that nothing like this would happen in their lifetime.

This seems to make a decent amount of sense, on the simple understanding of this part in the Torah. However, the Daas Zekeinim says he has a different basic understanding of these pesukim which are found in the second parsha of this week’s double Torah portion of Mattos and Maasei, the source of this concept.  The Torah says: “But if the murderer goes beyond the border of the city of refuge to which he had fled, and the blood avenger finds him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the blood avenger slays the murderer, he has no blood. For he shall remain in his city of refuge until the Kohen Gadol dies, and only after the Kohen Gadol has died, may the murderer return to the land which is his possession” (Bamidbar 35:26-29).

The Daas Zekeinim exclaims on pasuk 28 that the simple understanding of why the accidental murderer must stay in the city of refuge until the kohen gadol dies is in order that the world won’t speak badly about the kohen gadol when they see the murderer outside of the city of refuge. They would say: “See this guy who killed someone, and the kohen gadol refuses to take revenge upon him, it is his responsibility, as it says: ‘And you shall come to the kohen who will be [serving] in those days’ (Devarim 35:28).” But when the kohen gadol dies they would not suspect the kohen that is appointed after him, for what evil speech can they say about him, since the murder did not happen while he was kohen gadol. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The mishnayos and gemara in Makkos seems to be saying that the accidental murderer must stay in the city of refuge in order to save his life ad he can only leave without worrying that he will be killed once the kohen gadol who was in charge at the time of the murder passes on. Also, it is granted that to a large extent he deserves to live in this city of refuge because he could have been more careful with what he was doing but he wasn’t and someone was killed based on his negligence. But the kohen gadol seems also to be held to account for not davening hard enough for this to not have happened.

Yet the Daas Zekeinim has a totally different interpretation, and claims that this is the simple understanding of the text: the accidental murderer must stay inside the city of refuge in order that people won’t slander, i.e. speak lashon hara, about the kohen gadol, for not taking revenge on this accidental murderer. What should the kohen gadol have done? The Daas Zekeinim quotes a pasuk which talks about the bikurim, first fruits, that were brought to the kohen gadol which the Torah says must be done with true joy for performing the mitzvah, and the Daas Zekeinim there says the crops are blessed at that time. So these scoffers seemed to have not wanted the kohen gadol to accept the accidental murderer’s bikurim, as revenge for the accidental murder.
First off, we have to understand how the Daas Zekeinim can be arguing on the second perek of Makkos, especially since it seems to be the simple understanding of the pesukim in the Torah. However, it is possible to say this even if family members don’t want to kill him. Perhaps he is a friend, they couldn’t come to do such a thing, or he is known for being an upstanding citizen in general. He knows and is confident that he would not be killed if he lives outside of the city of refuge; still in all the Daas Zekeinim says he still must live inside the city of refuge until the Kohen gadol dies in order that people won’t slander the kohen gadol.

But why should he be punished in such a manner? Being away from where he normally lives, from doing what he is used to doing, and from being a part of normal society? Did he really do something terribly wrong; it was an accident? He might have fallen down a ladder while going down it and fallen on someone, killing them, or the like. Should that warrant being locked up in a city of refuge simply because people might commit the grievous sin of speaking lashon hara about the kohen gadol if they see the killer on the street? The kohen gadol wouldn’t even do anything wrong according to their slander. If the murderer would be free to roam the streets and want to fulfill the honorable mitzvah of giving the first fruits of his crop to Hashem on Shavuos then the kohen would accept the mitzvah and these outlandish scoffers would not want the mitzvah accepted. Why should we even worry about what such people say, especially to deprive this person of an opportunity of performing a mitzvah if he wants?

We learn from this Daas Zekeinim to what extent we are held accountable for the negligible actions we do. Once we do something which has negative repercussions even if we claim it was an accident,  now we are responsible for even the most farfetched, and despicable ramifications like other people’s potential slander which caused the Beis HaMikdash to be destroyed and still not rebuilt to this day which is why the accidental killer is stuck in the city of refuge until the kohen gadol dies.