One who inadvertently takes the life of another person is commanded to flee to a city of refuge. This is a positive commandment no different from donning Tefillin or eating Matzah on Pesach. The sentenced murderer may not leave the city under any circumstances, until the Cohen Godol dies. This includes both personal leave such as a family wedding, and leave to perform a mitzvah such as the festival pilgrimage to the Beis Hamikdash. The Rambam takes this one step further, he writes (Hilchos Rozeiach 7:8): He may not leave to save a life from marauding bandits, flood, fire etc…
This boggles the mind; someone is drowning outside the city yet the manslaughterer may not leave. Don’t we learn that any law except for three cardinal sins are suspended if keeping the law threatens a life; why then may he not leave? Moreover this presents a moral issue: He is sentenced for lack of sensitivity to human life, yet when the opportunity arises to make amends and save life, he is told stay in the city and remain inactive. How do we understand this?
Let us begin with probing why is exile the appropriate punishment for this unwilling murderer? In fact this is the only “jail sentence” billed by Torah law. One who mistakenly kills another human, has effectively shortened his lifespan, whether they are young or old he has stopped their living clock. The atonement in this world for the perpetrator is a similar result, not death in time but death in space. He is sent to the city of refuge, and is confined to the city limits, his connection and sphere of influence on the rest of the world has been severed. Life doesn’t exist for him outside of the Ir Miklat. This is a consummate punishment, for killing someone else’s time, his space is killed. With this understanding we can now answer why he doesn’t leave the city even to save a life. Nothing exists outside of confines of his city, only what exists within the city is within his purview. From his perspective it is as if the drowning man is on another planet, as nothing exists outside of the city of refuge.
If limiting one’s influence constitutes an element of death, than increasing one’s influence is a stronger form of life.
Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (c. 1215 – 1293) known as the Maharam of Rothenburg was the leading German Rabbi, a poet and a major author of the Tosafots commentary on the Talmud.
In 1286, King Rudolf I a rabid anti Semite, persecuted the Jews and made them “serfs of the treasury” negating their political freedoms. Along with many others, Rabbenu Meir left Germany with his family and followers, but was captured in Lombardy and imprisoned in a fortress near Enisiheim in Alsace.
In exchange for an exorbitant ransom Rudolf was prepared to free him. When the Maharam heard about the sum needed to liberate him, he forbade the Jews to rescue him, opting to remain in prison. Rabbi Meir’s reasoning was based on the Gemora that captives may not be ransomed for more than their value, out of fear of encouraging the imprisonment of other Jews.
Despite being limited to a stone fortress he was not in contained in within his Miklat, on the contrary his light spread out far and beyond. Many of his Responsa and Tosafos were written in his cell, in addition he kept an active correspondence with his students. His influence while in jail was perhaps diminished but not eliminated; and today much of Ashkenazi Halachah is based on the Maharam.
He died in prison after seven years; the captors were furious and would not release the body for burial. Fourteen years after his death a ransom was paid by Reb Alexander Wifman, whose sole request was later fulfilled when he was subsequently laid to rest beside the Maharam.
One doesn’t bring a Sefer Torah to people who have been imprisoned, even for reading on Rosh Hashanoh and Yom Kippur (Shulchan Aruch 135:14)