What’s at our gates? “Judges and law-enforcement official”, states this week’s Torah reading. The Arizal (Rabbi Yizchak Luria 1534-1572) gives us a hint: it seems like we are talking about the city’s gates, but since “the world is a [like] a big, giant person and each human is like a tiny [whole] world”, we’re also talking about our very own selves. As such we must look, not only outside, but inside too, and examine: If we were a country, what kind of systems would we have? What’s our education ministry, tourism ministry, social welfare like? What kind of guards, watch towers, protection do we have? Is our radar fine-tuned, sloppy, too intense? Based on what values do we foster our relationship with our neighboring countries? And those further away? Who do we let in? Anyone , or do we scrutinize? Davka (especially) during this season of tshuva (repentance but also, finding answers) and new beginnings, we get to think, in what kind of place do we want to live next year, within and without? And by the way, if we’re talking about gates and about tshuva, indeed it says – that the gates of tshuva never close. Though this is a good season for it, it’s by no mean the only time to do it.
We might think that the connection between people and trees is a fad of recent years with the rise of the environmental movement, but a quick look in our Book, will reveal otherwise. כי האדם עץ השדה – “For the human is like a tree of the field“, states the famous verse from Deuteronomy 20:19, possibly asking us to consider trees and humans – similar. But things go way back, long before the last book of the Torah. Is there meaning in the fact that Adam, the first human, was placed in a Garden and that his first transgression is “vis-a-vie” a tree? If a human and a tree are one and the same, or at least mirror images, is the Torah telling us that Adam’s first mistake is sinning against himself? that that is a core requirement of us, to do right, not only to others, but to ourselves too? and that this is why G-d calls to the human saying, ‘where are you?’
The last section this week introduces the “Egla Arufa” (Deuteronomy 21:1-9). This is a peculiar practice that might get lost due to its peculiarity and deserves a very slow read. For the sake of getting this out before Shabbat, here is the short. If you chance upon a body in “no man’s land” (such as the field between two cities), and you have no idea how did this person die (though it’s clear this was a homicide), this is what you must do: 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 their hands in the blood and water, and thus “doing right in the eyes of G-d”. It’s hard not to read this and just go, eh… 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 at all???
Let’s try and picture the scene in more details: imagine, G-d forbid, walking in the filed, and chancing upon a body in the middle of nowhere. What would we do? scream, run away, stall?? I mean, we’re nowhere, there is no one, and the guy is dead! Luckily, we don’t know him, so will we slowly back up and pretend we also didn’t see anything, and this didn’t happen?? What do we need to get involved in this for?? What if we get blamed? What if they don’t believe us?? And it’s so far, and we have things to do!!
It’s tempting to think that we would just “naturally” or “automatically” do the “right thing”, but humans were not given laws for nothing.
Next: Suppose we made it to the nearby city, and told someone about the whole thing. And suppose they believe us. They now have to assemble “our elders and our judges” – not just anyone but sages with whom we 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 pre 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 pay any attention? 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. This is the life of a human being, the life of G-d’s image.
If all that does not help, 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 one just like that?? And if you do, if you do have that little, cute, young, heifer that “has not been worked with”, which you so need, 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??
For a while, the ordeal of “Egla Arufa” happened very rarely if ever, because the conditions are so numerous and complicated, and when bandits and robbers increased, it was canceled. But its lessons are what matters still. The whole Torah portion is about creating order and justice in society and yet, there are not enough law-enforcement forces in the whole world to guard us. The main thing is, not to get to that point where we need to worry about finding the right heifer, and solve obscure murder cases, but to do something well before.