Matos-Masei: Living in Exile
A concept that we as Jews are well acquainted with and a word we hear often is golus (or galut, depending on where you’re from), exile. Particularly at this time of year, the “Three Weeks” that culminate with Tisha B’Av, our thoughts are focused on the current exile in which we find ourselves for close to two millennia. Of course, exile is a source of much pain and misery and our main thoughts are what we can do to end it and bring on the glorious days of Mashiach.
Interestingly, the parsha (Torah portion) that we read this week casts the concept of exile in an entirely new light. Let’s take a quick look at the discussion of that particular form of exile; it will give us an understanding of the benefits of the exile that has been the lot of our People for almost as long as we can remember.
One who commits murder is given the death penalty. Obviously, that is only the case if the murder was intentional. However, the Torah considers murder such a terrible sin that even if it occurred by accident, if that accident was preventable, the perpetrator is still dealt with severely. If someone was engaged in a dangerous activity, say he was chopping wood in a public area and did not exercise sufficient caution and a chip shot out and fatally hit a bystander, he loses his place in society. Practically, that means that he “goes into golus,” he must move away from his home and city to one of the designated arei miklat, cities of refuge where he must live indefinitely. Only in the event of the death of the Kohen Gadol, High Priest, may he leave that city to return home.
There is a fascinating explanation as to why this particular form of punishment is appropriate. If we think about it, the guilt in this particular case is not so much the act that was done as the attitude that brought it about. How can we hold someone responsible for something that he did not intend to do? The answer is that it is not the act per se that he is responsible for, but rather for the fact that he was not focused on what he was doing. He allowed things to happen randomly. His mind was not focused enough on his actions and their effects.
The Torah’s remedy for that malady is exile. We can view it not as a punishment but, rather, as therapy. When we become set in our ways, that brings complacency and inattentiveness to our surroundings and actions. Put a person in a position where he is unfamiliar and uncomfortable; he will become alert and aware. He will be tuned in to his situation and his responsibilities.
A murderer is sent to golus. The Torah picked specific cities to where he may be exiled. Those cities are the cities of the levi’im, the tribe whose job it was to educate the Jewish People. How fitting it is that someone who needs his awareness of his actions to be rehabilitated is sent specifically to the cities of the educators.
In describing his stay in the City of Refuge, the word “vochai– he shall live” is used. The Talmud understands this word to be a requirement for the cities designated for the murderers to provide the amenities necessary for comfortable living. They must be populous areas where food and apartments are readily available. But it goes even further. It is possible that by relocating, the murderer will be forfeiting the most essential thing to his life which he had access to only in his hometown. In that case, we must see to it that his lifeline is relocated along with him. What could that possibly be? What could he need more than food and shelter? That would be his rebbe, his Torah teacher. If the murderer had a rebbe, an individual who was especially suited to be his teacher, that rebbe had to go into golus with him, so that he would be able to “live life” to the fullest, to be brought out of his lethargic complacency.
So yes. At this time of the year, we mourn the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash, the Holy Temple. We hope and pray that it will be speedily rebuilt so that we can leave our exile. But now we see that our exile is not just a lack of availability of a homeland. It is not just a negative. We were specifically placed in exile by Hashem Who wanted us to have the benefits of golus. Exile, being in a place where we aren’t comfortable gives us a heightened sense of awareness of who we are, what we are doing and what we are meant to do. Indeed, we have always grown and continue to grow from the experience.
We yearn for the day when we will have benefitted sufficiently that we will be prepared to return once more to the Holy Land and rebuild the Bais HaMikdash. May it be speedily in our days.
Rabbi Elimelech Trenk