The Prayer Effect
One important section of Parshat Masei is the introduction of the cities of refuge. They get their name precisely from their purpose – to be a place of refuge and protection. Someone who accidently kills another person would be sent to such a city usually for two reasons – to both protect them from any vengeance the deceased’s family might wish upon them, but also to help them atone for their actions. The cities of refuge were home to the Levites, whose lives’ mission was service to others; thus the ‘inmates’ would learn lessons in care and concern for others during their stay, which was essential to their healing and rehabilitation.
People would have to stay in such a city until the death of the High Priest (Kohen Gadol). For some that might only be a few days or weeks, but for others it was almost a lifetime. The Rambam explains that when a national tragedy occurs, like the death of a Kohen Gadol, the people are united. So the hot-blooded relative of the victim will put aside his grudge and lose interest in taking revenge on the accidental killer; therefore, with this death it would be safe for him to walk free.
It is interesting to note that the Talmud explains that the mother of the Kohen Gadol was worried about the safety of her son, fearing that many people would be praying for his death. Thus, we are told that, traditionally, she would bring care packages to the ‘inmates’ so that they would feel comfortable enough not to want to leave. This was common practise – but it doesn’t make much sense. Of course the mother knew they would still wish to leave, therefore would some freshly baked cakes really have any effect? Furthermore, the Kohen Gadol was truly righteous. He would be the only person deemed appropriate to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur to pray for the entire nation – why would the prayers of the people living in these cities have any real effect on such a Tsaddik?
The mothers knew that the prayers of the inmates would be totally genuine and wholehearted. With complete sincerity from the depths of their hearts they would pray to God, knowing that the death of the High Priest would set them free. This was their only way out! These mothers were very much aware of the power of prayer and the effects that true, sincere prayer can have.
Prayer has two important functions. By using prayer we build a strong relationship with our creator, but it also reminds us that we are completely dependent on him. We have free will to make the right (or wrong) decisions in life, but, in essence, so much of our destiny is out of our hands.
Our prayer also has tremendous power – it allows for introspection. No prayer is ever turned away; we may not be able to see its full effects and the answer might be ‘no,’ but God has granted us this gift of communication, which we must tap in to and use. Whether it be through prayer or those quiet few moments in a busy day, we should use them as opportunities to pause for reflection and self-growth.
Therefore, the mother of the Kohen Gadol reacted in such a way because she knew the effects of heartfelt prayer.
Please God may we all feel that ultimate connection, and realise the power we possess at our fingertips – that prayer can actually affect who we are and the life we want to have.
The Torah is not dry. In a unique way laws and commandments are intertwined with historic facts and figures, and subtle ideas for growth are mystically weaved into stories of our ancestors. Hidden within the words on the page we find depth and wisdom and an important guide to life. The Sedra of Matot is no different and has a powerful messages running throughout.
We open with laws pertaining to nedarim – vows. Jewish Law considers our words very weighty. If a person would (under all the appropriate circumstances) make a vow with true intent, then we hold them to their word. For example, if a person pledges that they will no longer use their mobile phone; their phone becomes prohibited to them. In exactly the same way that any other sin is prohibited.
There are many examples and several elements that would lead to the correct fulfillment, but in essence we hold a vow to be true. Taking this a step further, according to some rabbinic authorities breaking a vow results an even harsher penalty then breaking a rabbinic decree. Continuing this logic it could mean that it would be worse to use the phone than eat chicken with cheese together.
When explaining these laws to the leaders of the 12 Tribes, Moshe uses the expression ‘Zeh hadavar’ – ‘this is the thing that Hashem commands…’ Our commentators pick up on the fact that the words zeh hadavar are rarely used. ‘Zeh’ – ‘this,’ connotes absolute clarity. Moshe was simply giving over these laws with clarity and purpose in his speech and approach.
Interestingly these laws are given to the heads of the tribes first, and not to the greater assembly. This further emphasises the power of speech. A leader who commands respect and has the ear of his followers needs careful precision and greater sensitivity to the words he chooses. For the greatest of leaders, their followers hang on every word, so it would be incumbent on them to speak with clarity and diligence, making every word count.
It is also noteworthy that an old foe is briefly mentioned, seemingly out of context. Bilam the non-Jewish prophet who conspired with Balak to destroy the Jewish People was killed in the war against Midian. However the reminder of Bilam is very deliberate and significant. Bilam was not a warrior, he did not come up against the Jewish People with his sword, rather he used the power of words to wreak havoc. He conspired and planned the annihilation of our people all through the spoken word.
We all know from our own life experiences the great power of our speech. Speech can make peace and cause war. It can destroy and also build, it can love and also hate.
Whether we are leaders, parents, friends, we must take the care to ensure our speech is always appropriate and meaningful. To continue our theme from previous weeks, let us all focus on creating more peace in the world, and although events across the sea are out of our hands, we can do our bit for peace – our words can bring about peace.