In this week’s parshah the Torah teaches some of the halachos regarding one person accidentally killing another. The halacha is that one of the relatives of the deceased may kill the accidental murderer to avenge his relative’s death. To avoid this, the Torah arranged for cities of refuge where the accidental murderer can live. While in this city, he may not be killed. This is referred to as galus.
There is a dispute whether galus is more than just a city of refuge. Some hold that living in the city provides atonement for the accidental murder. The Gemara in Makkos 2b explicitly says that galus is mechaper.
There is a famous Gemara in Makkos 10b that explains how Hashem exacts judgment. The Gemara says that if one person killed another intentionally but without witnesses, beis din may not put him to death, a punishment he would have deserved had there been witnesses to his actions.
In another situation in which no one witnessed an unintentional killing, beis din may not send him to galus. Hashem arranges these two individuals to lodge at the same inn. He arranges for the intentional killer to go under a ladder, and for the unintentional killer to climb the ladder. The unintentional killer would then unintentionally fall, killing the intentional killer – this time with witnesses present. The intentional killer will receive his deserving punishment (death), and the unintentional killer will then be sent to galus.
The Maharsha there asks why it was necessary for the unintentional killer to ultimately be sentenced to galus. Since there were no witnesses to his first killing, the deceased’s relatives would not be allowed to kill him. Why would it be necessary for Hashem to ensure that he receive a sentence of galus? The Maharsha answers that perhaps the relatives became aware of the killing by other means and would otherwise have killed him.
It is apparent from the Maharsha that he does not see galus as atoning for killing accidentally; otherwise, this Gemara would not bother him. If galus served as a form of atonement for accidental murder, we would understand why Hashem would want this person to ultimately receive his punishment.
The Gemara in Makkos 11b says that a person in galus goes free upon the death of the kohen gadol. The Mishnah says that if the kohen gadol dies after one was sentenced to galus but before he enters the city of refuge, he is exempt from galus and the relatives may no longer kill him. The Gemara explains that we know this halacha from a kal vachomer. If one already sitting in galus goes free upon the death of the kohen gadol, one who has not yet sat in galus can certainly go free upon his death. The Gemara points out that perhaps he receives atonement due to the fact that he has already sat in galus, and therefore goes free when the kohen gadol dies. Someone who has yet to sit in galus should not go free when the kohen gadol dies. The Gemara asks rhetorically whether it is the sitting in galus that atones. The Gemara answers that it is the death of the kohen gadol that atones. Thus he may go free – even if he has yet to enter the city.
Tosafos there asks about the earlier gemara, on 2b, which implied that sitting in galus indeed serves as atoning. Tosafos answers that it is the kohen gadol’s death that is the atonement of the galus. We see this from the fact that one person can sit in galus for one day and then be set free upon the death of the kohen gadol, yet another can sit in galus for years until the kohen gadol dies. This is evidence that it is not the sitting in galus that atones but rather it is the death of the kohen gadol that atones.