Parashat Shoftim begins with justice. It sets up the ideal of wise uncorruptible judges whose decisions are respected. A society that does this, promises the opening of our parashah, will thrive on its land.
At the end of Parashat Shoftim, we are presented with a case about this limits of justice. The case is called the eglah arufah, “The Broken-Necked Heifer.” Here is the scenario: a murdered body is found in the open, outside of city limits, and the killer cannot be identified. Instead of filing it away as an unsolved mystery, respected elders from the area go out and measure the distance from the body to the surrounding towns. Whichever settlement is nearest to where the body was found must then perform a ritual. The elders of the town take a heifer that has never been worked or carried a yoke. They bring it outside the town to a nahal eitan, a wadi that flows year-round, on land that is not cultivated. There, they break the neck of the heifer. Then, in front of priests from the tribe of Levi who have gathered especially for the occcasion, the elders of the town wash their hands in the water of the stream, and make a declaration:
Yadeinu lo shaf’khu et hadam hazeh, v’einayim lo ra’u—”Our hands did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.”
In so doing, they remove the bloodguilt. In Hebrew, the expression is v’nikaper lahem hadam That should sound familiar. nikaper is from the same root as kaparah, which is the same as Yom Kippur. It means atonement, and it refers to the washing away of sin that is attached to our souls.
This would seem to suggest that the inhabitants of the nearby town bear a certain degree of guilt. Otherwise, what need would they have for atonement?
The Jerusalem Talmud offers two explanations, one from the Rabbis of the land of Israel, and the other from the Rabbis of Babylon. In Israel, the Rabbis understand the ritual to be a reference to the murderer. The elders declare: “the murderer never came through our town. We never saw him. He was not in our jail and we did not let him go free.”
The Rabbis of Babylonia suggest that the ritual refers to the victim. “The victim never came through our town. Otherwise, we would have surely taken care of him. We would never have failed to offer him food, or ensure his safe passage.”
Both explanations involve the elders claiming that their communities are the kinds of communities that take responsibility for what happens in their town. They do not allow criminals to walk the streets, and they do not neglect their obligations to take care of those who live on the margins.
In other words, they are saying, “we are fine, upstanding people. People in our town do not do things like this. We don’t let anyone slip through the cracks. We didn’t do anything. We didn’t see anything.”
This still does not solve the problem. If they did everything they were supposed to do, why do they need atonement?
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Bunim offers a creative explanation, suggesting that they may not be as innocent as they seem to claim. He points out a grammatical problem with one word in the declaration by the elders. “Our hands did not spill this blood.” yadeinu lo shaf’khu et hadam hazeh.
The problem is with the word shaf’khu, which is a verb meaning “spill.” The Torah uses what the commentator Ibn Ezra describes as a really ancient spelling. Instead of ending with a ו, it ends with a ה.
שפכהThe vowels, according to the Masoretic text, are שָׁפְכֻה,
rendering the pronunciation shaf’khu.
If we read it like it is written in later Hebrew, it would say shaf’khah, which is singular, as in “our hand has not spilled this blood.” Just one hand. Not two. Why does this matter?
It is impossible for the elders to say, “everything we did, we did with both of our hands.” Rather, they say, “What we did, we did with just one hand, because there will always remains some degree of guilt that we did not do enough.”
It’s such a clever insight on so many levels. As human beings, we are self interested creatures. We don’t like to admit guilt.
A parent walks into the room and sees red crayon marks all over the walls. She turns to her three year old, who is holding a red crayon, and asks, “Why are there red crayon marks on the wall?”
What does the three year old say?
“I didn’t do it.”
Our gut reaction is always to say “I didn’t do it.”
In the case of the eglah arufah, the crime has been committed nearby. Suspicion naturally falls on those who are closest. What is the declaration that they make? It’s the same as the three year old with a crayon. “We didn’t do it.” But that does not mean that we don’t bear some responsibility. We might not have been the ones who committed the murder, but can we really say that we were paying close enough attention to what was happening around us?
Did we take responsibility for our community—both by making sure it was safe, and by taking care of the people who needed help? Did we open our eyes and take notice of the very individuals who tend to not get noticed? When tragedies occur, are those who claim to be innocent bystanders really innocent?
I was listening yesterday to a radio show on which people were calling in with reactions to the split verdict in the Ghost Ship fire. People were rightfully angry about how such an unsafe situation could be allowed. There was plenty of discussion about who should be held responsible, beyond just the two people who were put on trial. But of course, this is all after the fact—after 36 people died in a fire that should never have broken out. But that is the way it goes with tragedies. It is easy to cast blame after the fact.
But maybe we should admit, as a society, that we never do everything we could have to build the kind of caring community that the Torah sets up as an ideal.
The Rabbis themselves acknowledge this. In the second century, the Mishnah (Sotah 9:9) declares: “When the murderers increased, the rite of the eglah arufah was abolished.” The ritual itself became meaningless. Communities could not honestly claim that they had done everything that they could, or should have.
Parashat Shoftim begins with the ideal of justice. It ends with a recognition of human imperfection.
Perhaps we should be honest enough to say, instead of “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t see anything” that “Maybe I looked the other way. Perhaps I could have done more.”
That would be a great step for a society that strives to move towards justice.