Matot-Masei: Unselfish Prayers

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot-Masei

The double portion of Matot and Masei concludes the book of Bamidbar/Numbers. Laws are given for annulment of vows, spoils of war, and division of lands. The history of the decades in the wilderness is reviewed and the portions conclude with laws for cities of refuge and more on the division of the land.

It’s hot in Poughkeepsie!

Probably not as hot as it was those 40 years in the desert, though, so who am I to complain? This week we finish the book of Bamidbar – literally, “in the wilderness”- with laws that only apply once the people arrive in the land of Israel. Among those laws are the cities of refuge, to which someone who accidentally killed another might flee, safe from avenging family members of the victim. The one who committed manslaughter was safe as long as he was in the city of refuge; if he went out of the city, and was met by a blood-avenger. . . .well, let’s just say he should have stayed home and caught up on reruns.

However, the term of the manslayer’s confinement is variable: in a seemingly odd detail, the Torah tells us that the accidental killer must stay in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest. (Cf. Bamidbar 35:25.) It makes sense that remaining in the city of refuge is not a permanent sentence- after all, it was an accident, and presumably some period away from home gives the victim’s family time to cool off and forgive. (As an aside: if one could forgo vengeance in the case of manslaughter, as the Torah seems to hope, isn’t it rather embarrassing to realize all the lesser things we struggle to forgive?)

Yet commentators have no consensus regarding the seeming non sequitur of the death of the High Priest- what does he have to do with a mishap far from the capital ? Our friend Rashi brings two interpretations from earlier texts: first, the High Priest and the killer are sort of cosmic opposites. The HP blesses the people with life, but the killer causes death, and is thus unworthy of standing before the current High Priest and is only free when the next one takes office, presumably “resetting” the cycle of guilt and innocence.

Rashi’s second interpretation is more germane to our year 5770 theme of prayer and spirituality: the life of the HP and the freedom of the accidental killer are connected because the priest should have prayed that such a terrible thing should not have happened in his lifetime. Notice, please, that in the first interpretation, the killer was confined because he was unworthy of being in the presence of that particular High Priest; in the second, it’s the High Priest whose death atones in some way for a problem for which he bore some responsibility.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think that the priest, way off in Jerusalem, is responsible for a bar fight in Beersheva, regardless of the intensity of his prayer. Rather, I think we can take from this midrash that the High Priest should have included the safety of all the citizens in his prayers; his failure to pray for the well-being of the people reflected a shortcoming in his spiritual leadership. Prayer, if it is genuine, is unselfish and broadens our vision; when we pray for others, we take into our hearts their pain and needs, and displace the incessant self-centeredness that gets in the way of compassion.

Accidents happen, and are not typically prevented by good davenning. What is prevented by prayer is indifference to suffering. Prayer isn’t about getting what you want in the moment; it’s about becoming more deeply aware of our connectedness to others- because we area all, in the end, part of One-  so that their welfare is our own. So perhaps the death of the High Priest was an atonement for indifference, or perhaps it was imagined as such an occasion for mourning in Israelite society that people had no desire to see more pain and loss. In either case, for us, the question remains: how shall we make our prayers other-directed, inclusive, compassionate, and unselfish? Of course- when we change our prayers, we change ourselves.

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