Matot-Massei: Prayer as Refuge, Cities of Shema

This week’s Torah portion mandates the establishment of cities of refuge for accidental killers:

Among the cities you shall give to the Levites, shall be six cities of refuge, which you shall provide [as places] to which a manslayer can flee. In addition to them, you shall provide forty-two cities.  All the cities you shall give to the Levites shall number forty-eight cities, them with their open spaces. (Numbers 35:6-7)

Why would the number of required cities of refuge be set forth in this odd way: 6 plus 42? 

When we pray, we say the six words of the Shema, then add 42 words from V’ahavta through u’visharecha.  Is there a connection between the two instances of “six plus 42?” 

Let’s first consider the purpose of the Levitical cities.  They protected the manslayer from the vengeance of the deceased’s family.  But our tradition teaches a further significance.  

The inadvertent killing likely occurred because the manslayer did not sufficiently regard the wellbeing of the deceased.  He did not "love his neighbor as himself."  To correct his behavior, G-d commanded that he be sent to a city populated by the Levites and priests, whose primary job was to teach Torah.

Furthermore, the priests were the descendants of Aharon, who had a special knack for bringing peace between a man and his neighbor. Thus, the Levitical cities were considered the ideal environment to rehabilitate the manslayer. The manslayer could learn Torah by observing it in the actions of those who were trained and called to teach Torah. 

Now let’s consider the main messages of the Shema and V’ahavtah.  When we say the Shema, we acknowledge accountability to a higher authority than our individual will. When we add the V’ahavtah, we are reminded of our responsibilities, and of the consequences to living up to them -- or failing to do so.  

Each of us is a potential inadvertent "killer" – of feelings, relationships, opportunities, reputations, etc.  Each of us fails to fully live up to our responsibilities.  The Shema and V’ahavtah can be considered metaphysical “cities of refuge and rehabilitation,” always available to us through prayer, reflection, and Torah study.  

The Hebrew word for prayer -- להתפלל  l’hitpalel -- is grammatically reflexive, meaning that it is something we do to or for ourselves.  We say the "6 plus 42" words of the Shema and V'ahavtah prayers to and for ourselves and our community, so that we will treat others properly. 

May our recitation of these primary prayers afford us both solace and rehabilitation as we daily seek to become better people. 

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem! 

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