Evening walk on this Haifa street: red-roof, multi-family homes on left, woodsy forest of pines and oaks on the right, and a movement in the ticket. A person? Too wide. A cat or dog? Too big. But there is movement. And eyes. And a furry back. What can it be? A wild boar meandering along, casually looking for food, totally oblivious to the passersby, then heading back and disappearing among the trees. What to do when we run into strange and unusual things?? The Torah portion of Shoftim introduces us to one such case.
Here is the short:
If you chance upon a dead body in the field and you don’t know what happened and who killed the person, the elders and judges of the area, should measure from that body to the nearest city, so the elders of that city can atone for the dead with a certain “ritual”. 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”. 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 and left us their thoughts. 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 furthermore: 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:
I’m talking my evening walk, and instead of spotting the wild boar in Haifa, I, g-d forbid, chance upon a body in the middle of nowhere. What would / could / should I do? Probably first, scream; or maybe, be horrified and speechless; maybe look right and left for help, but we’re nowhere and there is no one… I can hear my mind going, ‘the guy is dead, there’s nothing to help him with, and you can get in trouble! Will I slowly back up and pretend I didn’t see it, and this didn’t happen?? If I try to get help, what if I get blamed? What if they don’t believe me?? And it’s so far from anywhere, and I have things to do!! Let someone else find him and deal with it!!
I know it’s tempting to think we would just “naturally” “know” to do the “right thing”, but most often, there is a reason why we were given laws. It’s that we davka don’t automatically do the “right thing”. It takes work.
So, suppose I collected my breath, made it to the nearby city, and told someone about the whole thing. And suppose they even believe me, they can still say, hey, thank you so much, but that’s really the next city’s jurisdiction…. But according to the Torah, they now have to assemble “my elders and my judges” – not just anyone but sages who have gained the community’s trust – who need to go out and measure. We don’t have google earth and can’t do this from home. We 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: Hey listen, something serious; someone was killed nearby to us!!
People are starting to talk: Who is that someone? Do we recognize him? Do we know him? Is he from around here? Did he have enemies? Did anyone see him?? If yes, what’s going on among us?? If no, 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 uncover what happened, we must find the murder; we must because if not, we know what’s next.
We need a heifer. Do you have one?? Not anyone; 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”, that you so need, because, after all, we live in a place where heifers are extremely valuable, 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 man’s blood?? But rather, they publicly acknowledge that they have done all they can, not just for this one person, but that 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?? Do we??
I’d like to think that the ordeal of “egla arufa” (Deuteronomy 21:1-9) happened very rarely if ever, because the conditions for it, are so numerous and complicated, but its lessons are what matters. The whole Torah portion is about creating order and justice in society from the gates and inward. And yet, there is not enough police force in the world to assure “nothing” will ever happen. The main thing goes back to us. Let’s not wait to worry about finding the “right” heifer and solving obscure murder cases. We should think about doing things well before, for the strangers among us and those dear and near; value and care for those around us so we avoid getting into a situation from which it’s hard to get out.