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Weekly Chizuk



In this week's parshah we learn the mitzvah of Orei HaMiklot, "Cities of Refuge" (see Bamidbar 35:9-12). When a Jew killed accidentally, he would go into exile by fleeing to one of the established Orei HaMiklot in Eretz Yisroel. There, he would live out his life until the death of the Kohen Gadol.

Six principal cities of refuge were designated in the Holy Land, three on either side of the River Jordan. In addition, the 42 cities of the Levi'im scattered throughout the Holy Land similarly served as a safe havens for the accidental killer. He was confined to reside within the walls of this city. This indefinite sentence lasted until the death of the current Kohen Gadol.

Why was the asylum of the cities of refuge necessary for the one responsible by accident in the death of a fellow Jew?

Kedusha, sanctity intrinsically relates to the concepts of life, of holiness and of geulah, redemption. It is the ideal state where spiritual and physical coexist. There is an unbreakable umbilical cord attached to Hashem recognizing Him as the Source of all life. Conversely, tumah, impurity is synonymous with death, with spiritual contamination and with golus, exile. This conveys the sorry state of detachment from Hashem. It is where the spiritual is exiled from the physical, where the soul is driven out of the body.

That the killer was responsible for the death of another human being denotes a spiritual insensitivity to the innate value of life and more specifically, of the divine component encased within man. In lieu of disconnecting the deceased man's linkage to Hashem, the killer should by rights similarly lose his own existence. His introduction of death meant a soul departing from the body, which itself represents the antithesis of kedushah and geulah.

Instead, he has but one option available: he has to acquire a new "lease of life".

This was achieved by going into golus, exile. He had to flee to the cities of refuge or to the towns inhabited by the Levi'im. There, he would enter a consecrated habitat and be in the company of sacred people whose lives were fully dedicated to kedusha and attachment to Hashem in their service in the Temple. Only in their merit would he be granted a lifeline. (The Levi'im were not involved in the sin of the Golden Calf that reintroduced mortality into the world after the Divine Revelation at Sinai).

It was his detention and claim of "sanctuary" within this life-affirming environment that would be the key to his survival. Were he to step outside, however, he would automatically sunder his link to this lifeline and could then be killed instantly by the family of the deceased.

By virtue of his negligence to the sanctity of human life, the accidental killer was the exact opposite of the Kohen Gadol whose kedusha was dedicated for the Divine Presence to rest amongst the Jewish people and to lengthen their "lives". Not so this individual responsible for shortening life, bringing about death and in the process exiling the Shechinah. He therefore cannot possibly coexist with the High Priest side-by-side. Consequently, so long as the Kohen Gadol lived, the killer remained in exile. Only upon the death of the Kohen Gadol, would he go free (Rashi, Bamidbar 35:25).

In our own lives, it is essential that we never to forget how the life of every human being is sacrosanct by recognizing its divine origins and its tremendous potential. That leads us to note the ugliness of killing - whether accidental or deliberate - that strips man created in "the image of Hashem" of his existence (Osher Chaim Levene, SET IN STONE (2004: Targum).

In this context it is interesting to read the story of the Megaleh Amukos who actually accepted upon himself this atonement of golus.

Rav Nosson Nota Shapira of Krakow was known as a genius in a generation of geniuses. His photographic memory was unbelievable. So unbelievable, the local nobleman wanted to test him. He called him in and started reading to him a book in French, a language in which Rav Nosson Nota was not versed. He read for quite a while. Rav Nosson Nota's eyes started closing and his head drooped. "Dozing off?" the nobleman asked in Polish. Rav Nosson Nota shook his head in the negative. Finally, the nobleman asked him to repeat back what he had read. He started from the very beginning and repeated everything verbatim, including the interjection, "Dozing off?" at the exact spot the nobleman had asked it.

However, in addition to his stupendous genius, he was humble to an extreme. A story is told regarding the Bach (the great commentator on the Tur Shulchan Oruch, the father-in-law of the Taz). For a time the Bach was the Rav of Krakow. Once he spotted two men walking down the street, engrossed in conversation. It was obvious that they were great talmidei chachomim talking in learning. Moreover, their faces shone and he realized they must be great tzaddikim. Running behind them were four other men, dressed in rags. As fast as they ran, they couldn't catch up with the first two. The Bach ran over to the four men and asked who they were. They were silent, refusing to respond to his question.

The Bach realized that these were no ordinary people but souls from the next world. "I am the Rav of Krakow and by the power of my position I order you to tell me who you are!"

They were unable to refuse this order. They told him that they were Geichazi and his three sons.

"And who are the two men you are following?"

"They are Eliyahu and his talmid Elisha. This is our punishment. We are constantly running after Elisha and can never catch him."

"And where are they going?" the Bach asked.

"They are going to the Megaleh Amukos."

The Bach ran to the Megaleh Amukos's study and entered. "I am aware that you are presently learning with the prophet Eliyahu. As Rav of the city I order you to ask him why he doesn't come to learn with me?"

Unable to refuse the rav, the Megaleh Amukos turned to his chavrusa and asked him the question.

"As Rav of the city," Eliyahu answered, "you must have at least a small bit of arrogance. Otherwise, everyone would walk all over you and you would have no control. Be that as it may, even though for you arrogance is a necessity, and even a mitzvah, I cannot come to one who is arrogant." From this story we have an inkling of the humility of the Megaleh Amukos.

As great as was his intellect, so too was his avodas Hashem. His tefillos pierced the heavens. With great devotion he poured out his prayers to his Father in Heaven. When he said Tikun Chatzos his heart broke; his tears flowed like water over the exile of the Shechina until even the Heavenly court cried with him. This intense devotion was the cause of an incident that left Krakow stirred up for many years to come.

His wife told one of her sisters that her husband ordered her not to allow anyone into his study while he was saying Tikun Chatzos. Not only that, but he was putting his life in danger. Her sister did not take this statement too seriously and repeated it over to her two other sisters, who also paid it no mind. However, their husbands, the Megaleh Amukos's brothers-in-law, were great talmidei chachomim in their own right and knew that the Megaleh Amukos never allowed himself any idle chatter. Their curiosity was piqued and they decided to find out what exactly was going on during these sessions of Tikun Chatzos. Soon afterwards, the Megaleh Amukos went off to immerse himself in the river. They hid themselves under the bed in his study. Rav Nosson Nota returned from the river and closed the door, not sensing his uninvited guests. He studied until midnight, then sat on the floor and said Tikun Chatzos according to the Kavonos of the Arizal. He poured out his heart until he finished, and then got up to sit at his table and learn the rest of the night.

In the morning when the three brothers-in-law failed to return, the whole household started frantically searching for them. When the servant entered Rav Nosson Nota's room to clean up, and leaned over to sweep under the bed, she revealed the terrible sight. The three bodies lay lifeless under the bed. Of course, no words can describe the awful reaction of the city. Terrible wailing accompanied the funeral procession. Everyone was shaken up by it; including Rav Nosson Nota. He was broken. He followed their coffins in a state of total dejection.

He refused to explain how they had perished in his study. Moreover, he held himself responsible for their deaths. After Shiva he decided to go into a self-inflicted exile to atone for their deaths.

"What can I do," he confided to his wife. "When I say Tikun Chatzos the sound of the song of the wings of the holy Chayos (Angels) in Heaven is heard in the room. Most living creatures are unable to withstand the sound of that song. I am guilty of killing unintentionally and must go into exile to atone for the sin."

He made his wife swear not to reveal his whereabouts to anyone and he proceeded to don his exile garments. "How long will you be gone?" asked his wife. "Until Heaven sends me a sign that my sin has been atoned."

Under the cover of darkness, he stole out of the city and started wandering from town to town, and from village to village. He joined a band of beggars and kept his real identity a secret.

His father-in-law, Reb Moshe Eberliss, was in shock at his son-in-law's sudden disappearance. He repeatedly asked his daughter about her husband's whereabouts, but she adamantly kept the oath of secrecy and remained silent, claiming she did not know. With no other recourse, he frantically wrote letters to all the Rabbonim of neighboring towns, telling them that his son-in-law had disappeared. He supplied a detailed description and asked them to keep their eyes open for him and help him in his search.

Rav Nosson Nota wandered from city to city and from village to village for a long time. He accepted his suffering with love. His clothing became worn like the rest of his band of beggars. He spent his nights with his new friends in their "holy" lodgings. In the meantime, the Yom Tov of Succos quickly approached. The beggars arrived in Lublin on Erev Succos. A dark cloud descended on Rav Nosson Nota. How will I be able to get a kosher set of Lulav and Esrog to fulfill the mitzvah? Where am I going to find a succah to eat in?

At Mincha time he entered a shul to daven. Having no other choice, he turned to the gabbai of the city and asked him to set him up with lodgings at one of the ba'alei batim so that he could eat in a succah and perform the mitzvah of the four minim.

The gabbai was very experienced in sizing up the homeless travelers who passed through Lublin. His acute eyes quickly ascertained that this was no ordinary vagabond. "Where are you from?" he asked. Rav Nosson Nota evaded the question and did not answer. After some thought the gabbai sent him to one of the wealthy members of the city so that this extraordinary drifter should be able to sit in a proper succah and perform the mitzvah of lulav and esrog appropriately.

The holiday was ushered in and after Maariv the Megaleh Amukos accompanied his host to his extravagant succah. As soon as he entered, he broke out singing "Ulu Ushpizin Ila'in" in a heart-breaking tune. His enthusiasm grew from minute to minute and he quickly forgot where he was. He appeared like someone from a different world and the household stood silently stunned as their guest continued singing. They immediately became aware that they had a very holy guest, a hidden tzaddik.

After the seudah, the Megaleh Amukos asked his host if he could stay the night and learn in the succah. The host gladly agreed. Being that the succah would be occupied the entire night he relied on his guest and left all the valuable silver dishes and goblets in the succah.

Rav Nosson Nota quickly absorbed himself in learning. His excitement at being able to sit and learn overwhelmed him. His joy knew no bounds and he soon became oblivious to everything around him. He was totally unaware of the thieves that stole into the succah in the middle of the night and made away with all the silver. His entire soul was engrossed in holy spiritual worlds.

At daybreak, he put his head down to rest a bit before Shacharis. The host came out to the succah to see how his guest was doing. He was shocked to find his guest sleeping, the door of the succah wide open, and all the silver gone! He woke up the beggar and harshly questioned him about the silver. Rav Nosson Nota was very confused. He did not know what the man wanted. He had not heard any thieves in the middle of the night. His answers aroused extreme suspicion, and his host assumed that Rav Nosson Nota was in conspiracy with the thieves and had opened the door for them. He started beating Rav Nosson Nota to get him to reveal where he had hid the silver. But to no avail. The beggar continued to claim ignorance.

The sounds roused the neighbors who joined in beating the thief. They dragged him to a room that served as a jail until he would admit the theft and return the goods. All around the jail gathered a crowd who poured out their curses on the beggar who had disgraced Lublin. The children crowded around the window and threw mud on the thief.

Rav Nosson Nota stood there looking out of the barred window in dejection, but not over his plight as a suspected thief. He was not one to be disheartened by shame. That was like an arrow hitting a stone wall. Everything that happened to him was an atonement for his sin. What bothered him was looking at everyone passing by on their way to shul, carrying their lulavim and esrogim. How was he going to perform the mitzvah on a set of lulav and esrog? He pleaded with everyone who passed by to let him use their set. But they just ignored the lowly thief. "You, you good for nothing. You want a lulav? Give back the silver and we'll get you a lulav. You don't deserve anything." Finally, a widow felt sorry for him and brought him a set of four minim. His simcha knew no bounds.

The townspeople brought the Rav of Lublin to visit the thief to see if he could elicit a confession. He entered the cell and started conversing with thief. "Where is the silver?"

Afraid that he would be stuck here the whole Yom Tov and not be able to sit in a succah, he poured out his heart to the rav. "I didn't touch the silver. I did not steal it. I was so busy learning I did not notice anything. Maybe the thieves sneaked in while I was learning. I did not hear them. I am to blame for not watching the silver better. But I did not take them. I'm telling you the truth."

The Rav watched Rav Nosson Nota as he spoke. The man before him looked familiar, but he could not remember from where. He wracked his brains, trying to remember. Then it came to him. The Rav left the cell quickly and returned to his study. He searched in the drawer of his desk and pulled out a letter from Krakow. He read it carefully.

He quickly returned to the cell and examined the thief. The description in the letter fit the man to a detail. He decided that after davening he would interrogate him. He ordered the suspect released and took him to shul. The congregants duly surrounded him so that he could not escape.

After davening, the Rav took the suspect to his home. He honored the stranger with Kiddush in the succah and served some cake and drink. Afterwards they went into the Rav's study for the interrogation. The Rav took the letter out of his drawer and handed it to the stranger. "Read this letter," he ordered. Rav Nosson Nota read the letter and turned white. The Rav looked at him. "As Rav of Lublin I order you to explain to me why you ran away from Krakow!" Rav Nosson Nota was forced to tell him the whole story. "But I promise you, I didn't steal the silver," he concluded.

The Rav set his gaze on the stranger before him. His clothing was that of a beggar, but his face shone with holiness. "Chazal tell us that one on a mission of a mitzvah will not be harmed. Therefore, it is your duty to ensure that the thieves return the silver to the owner."

Rav Nosson Nota promised to take care of the matter.

The Rav left the cell and went to the Oshir who was waiting to hear the results of the interrogation. "I questioned the man and I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that he did not touch your silver. Not only that, the real thief will return everything by tonight. But you should know, you have humiliated a very great man and you must make amends."

The Oshir left the room while the Rav remained in the company of the stranger to enjoy a deep discussion in the secrets of the Torah.

As night fell, a sudden fear descended upon the thief. He started trembling. He quickly had regrets about his evil deed and promptly gathered all the stolen goods. He returned everything to the Oshir and cried his heart out in confession and remorse. The shocked owner quickly hurried to the Rav's house and apologized profusely to Rav Nosson Nota.

That evening, after Yom Tov, the Megaleh Amukos turned to the Rav and told him that he had been sent a message from Heaven that his sin had been forgiven and fully atoned. Now he wanted to return home to Krakow. The Lubliner Rav gave him a change of clothing appropriate for a person of his stature and accompanied him back to Krakow.

The two arrived in Krakow and were sadly informed that the Rav of the city had just passed away and the city was looking for a new Rav. It was amazingly Heaven-sent that the Lubliner Rav should arrive just now, they said, so they were offering him the job. To the townspeople's astonishment, the Rav refused. With a talmid chachom the stature of the Megaleh Amukos in the city, he could not accept the position. With this, the Megaleh Amukos became the new Rav of Krakow.

Wishing everyone a Gut Shabbos!

Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
4 Panim Meirot, Jerusalem 94423 Israel
Tel: 732-858-1257
Rabbi Parkoff is author of "Chizuk!" and "Trust Me!" (Feldheim Publishers), and "Mission Possible!" (Israel Book Shop Lakewood).
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