Don’t do nothing – Parashat Shoftim

For now, I am fortunate to walk to school in the mornings. The weather is actually very much a reminder of my Haifa childhood. There are magnificent, tall maple and other so green trees that enjoy and benefit from the humidity and occasional summer rains; lovely stone houses; beautiful front yards. When I walk in the mornings, I am part of a whole city going to school. Kids and parents in all shapes, colors, languages, dresses, habits, smelling like coffee, morning cigarettes, and fresh soaps.
Then somewhere on the curb, I chance on a bird’s nest. I think of stopping, and “doing something”, but the nearest branch is some 20 feet above me and the morning rush is at my back – people behind, people in front. I keep walking. But in a way, this little moment, takes me to a very strange incident at the end of this week’s Torah portion, when the laws of the “egla arufa” are introduced (Deuteronomy 21:1-9).

I posted the whole quote below (translation by mechon mamre). Here is the short: if you chance upon a body in the field and you don’t know what happened, who killed the person etc, your elders and judges should measure from that body to the nearest city, so the elders of that city can perform a “ritual” (yes, don’t like this word -) to atone for the dead. The ritual includes taking a heifer and breaking its neck in the gushing river nearby, washing hands in the blood and water, and thus “doing right in the eyes of G-d”. And it’s hard to read this and not just go, what???
Luckily, the great commentators and sages throughout the centuries have been likewise baffled by this. Abravanel (1437-1508) asked the same question, wondering how can the blood of a beheaded heifer atone for the iniquity and blood of the slain man? And further: if ‘no one knew’ and ‘no one did it’, why is anyone required to do anything???
Let’s try and picture the scene: instead of me walking down the streets of Riverdale and finding a nest, chas vechalila (G-d forbid), I would chance upon a body in the middle of nowhere. What would I do? Scream, perhaps; well, that would be useless. So maybe just be horrified and stumped and say nothing. I would look right and left for help, we’re nowhere, there is no one. What would I do? Will I go get help? What’s to help with? The guy is dead! And I don’t know him! Will I slowly back up and pretend I didn’t see it, and this didn’t happen?? What do I need to get involved in this for?? What if I get blamed? What if they don’t believe me?? And it’s so far, and I have things to do!!
I know it’s tempting to think I would just “naturally” or “automatically” do the “right thing”, but humans were not given laws for nothing.
Next: Suppose I made it to the nearby city, and told someone about the whole thing. And suppose they believe me. They now have to assemble “my elders and my judges” – not just anyone but sages with whom I have trust – and we need to go out and measure. We don’t have google earth and can’t do this from home. We actually have to walk the distances to the nearby cities. What a strange procession we must be! Surely, we attract others attention. This now means, more people are involved from all the towns around. In re e-days, this is our way of telling everyone of what happened: something serious. Someone was killed nearby.
People are starting to talk: Who is that someone? Is he from around here? Do we know him? Did he have enemies? Did anyone see him?? Maybe he is not from around here. How come he was near our towns and we did not know? Did he need hospitality and we didn’t provide it? Food? Shelter? Someone to talk with?? No doubt, there is an investigation. We must find the murder; we must uncover what happened, because if not, we know what’s next.
We need a heifer. Do you have one?? We need a heifer “which has not been worked with and which hath not drawn in the yoke”. Do you have that one?? And if you do, if you do have that little, cute, young, heifer that “has not been worked with”, etc, and that you so need, because, after all, we live in a place where things happen and who knows what will happen, are you sure you want to give it to us, to be beheaded for this ritual??
I think not. I think you- or me, if I had that heifer- would do everything possible to avoid this. This is perhaps expressed in the verse which the elders say at the end, “our hands have not shed this blood…”. Asks the Talmud, why do they need to even say this? Would we think that the elders have actually shed this (the man’s) blood?? But rather, they publicly acknowledge that they have done all they can; all that is possible and required: they were loving, kind, hospitable; they exemplified responsibility to their fellow town-people and travelers alike; and they taught others to do so as well. Can they say that? Have they (we) really done all they can??
I’d like to think that the ordeal of “egla arufa” happened very rarely if ever, because the conditions for it to happen, are so numerous and complicated, but its lessons are what matters. The whole Torah portion is about creating order and justice in society and yet, there are not enough policemen (and women) in the world to guard us. The main thing, is don’t wait to worry about finding the “right” heifer, and solving obscure murder cases. Do something well before. Value and care for those around you.

Shabbat Shalom.

* * * * * * *
א כִּי-יִמָּצֵא חָלָל, בָּאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לְרִשְׁתָּהּ, נֹפֵל, בַּשָּׂדֶה: לֹא נוֹדַע, מִי הִכָּהוּ. 1 If one be found slain in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath smitten him;
ב וְיָצְאוּ זְקֵנֶיךָ, וְשֹׁפְטֶיךָ; וּמָדְדוּ, אֶל-הֶעָרִים, אֲשֶׁר, סְבִיבֹת הֶחָלָל. 2 then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain.
ג וְהָיָה הָעִיר, הַקְּרֹבָה אֶל-הֶחָלָל–וְלָקְחוּ זִקְנֵי הָעִיר הַהִוא עֶגְלַת בָּקָר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עֻבַּד בָּהּ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-מָשְׁכָה, בְּעֹל. 3 And it shall be, that the city which is nearest unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take a heifer of the herd, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke.
ד וְהוֹרִדוּ זִקְנֵי הָעִיר הַהִוא אֶת-הָעֶגְלָה, אֶל-נַחַל אֵיתָן, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יֵעָבֵד בּוֹ, וְלֹא יִזָּרֵעַ; וְעָרְפוּ-שָׁם אֶת-הָעֶגְלָה, בַּנָּחַל. 4 And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which may neither be plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley.
ה וְנִגְּשׁוּ הַכֹּהֲנִים, בְּנֵי לֵוִי–כִּי בָם בָּחַר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְשָׁרְתוֹ, וּלְבָרֵךְ בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה; וְעַל-פִּיהֶם יִהְיֶה, כָּל-רִיב וְכָל-נָגַע. 5 And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near–for them the LORD thy God hath chosen to minister unto Him, and to bless in the name of the LORD; and according to their word shall every controversy and every stroke be.
ו וְכֹל, זִקְנֵי הָעִיר הַהִוא, הַקְּרֹבִים, אֶל-הֶחָלָל–יִרְחֲצוּ, אֶת-יְדֵיהֶם, עַל-הָעֶגְלָה, הָעֲרוּפָה בַנָּחַל. 6 And all the elders of that city, who are nearest unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley.
ז וְעָנוּ, וְאָמְרוּ: יָדֵינוּ, לֹא שפכה (שָׁפְכוּ) אֶת-הַדָּם הַזֶּה, וְעֵינֵינוּ, לֹא רָאוּ. 7 And they shall speak and say: ‘Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.
ח כַּפֵּר לְעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר-פָּדִיתָ, ה’, וְאַל-תִּתֵּן דָּם נָקִי, בְּקֶרֶב עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְנִכַּפֵּר לָהֶם, הַדָּם. 8 Forgive, O LORD, Thy people Israel, whom Thou hast redeemed, and suffer not innocent blood to remain in the midst of Thy people Israel.’ And the blood shall be forgiven them.
ט וְאַתָּה, תְּבַעֵר הַדָּם הַנָּקִי–מִקִּרְבֶּךָ: כִּי-תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר, בְּעֵינֵי ה’. 9 So shalt thou put away the innocent blood from the midst of thee, when thou shalt do that which is right in the eyes of the LORD. {S}

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This entry was posted in life and some, shabbat shalom, פרשת השבוע לחילוני האדוק and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Don’t do nothing – Parashat Shoftim

  1. neskama says:

    Thank you Michal. Reinforces something I just read by Rabbi Yaakov Mencken of The Genesis Project ……Judaism does not permit a distinction between obligations to G-d and our obligations to each other — after all, they both come from the same Source habbat shalom

  2. I think of it like parents and children – we appreciate the people who really love our kids, even if they are not great to us. –

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