Shoftim: A D’var Torah

A D’var Torah by Ann Green

“With any important issue,” wrote George Orwell, “there are always aspects no one wishes to discuss.” Shoftim covers a number of the more unpleasant aspects of life, such as war and murder. While in chapter 16 we read the famous phrase, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” the reality is that sometimes there is no justice. In Chapter 21 the text covers just such a situation, something we might rather not discuss, but nonetheless should not avoid.

I’ll review. I’ve abbreviated: “If in the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you… someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer… and … bring the heifer down to an ever flowing wadi…they shall break the heifer’s neck. The priests…shall come forward…all the elders of the town … shall wash their hands over the heifer…And they shall make this declaration: ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel…and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among your people … And they will be absolved of blood guilt…’” Also, nothing is to be planted on the spot where the blood was shed. The heifer’s required physical state of purity symbolizes the victim’s innocence.

This ritual is the egla arufa, the literal translation of which is “broken-necked calf.” It was interesting to me as I read through various commentaries, that the ritual was described as “curious,” ”mysterious,” “strange” and “unique.” Several commentators called it a chok, one of the laws whose meanings are not for us to understand, only to obey. I have a different take.

For one thing, animal sacrifice was a means of atonement long before it was replaced by prayer the triad of prayer, repentance and tzedakah. In Leviticus we read, “The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the altar, it is the blood, as life, that effect expiation…” In Numbers 35, in a discussion of laws related to murder, we read, “you shall not pollute the land…for blood pollutes the land…you shall not defile the land.” And, as you know, we are forbidden to ingest blood.

In Genesis 4 God says to Cain, “your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” It goes on to say that the land will no longer be fertile, as in today’s parasha, nothing will be planted there. And remember, the fertility of the land could mean life or death in those days. You might recall the red heifer ritual from Numbers, for purification of someone who’s become ritually unclean. “Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red heifer without blemish…” The heifer is taken outside of the camp and slaughtered, some of its blood is sprinkled by the high priest and then the corpse is burned. The priest washes his clothes and bathes. There is also a ritual described in Leviticus where Aaron lays hands on a live goat, confesses the Israelites’ sins, which are then transferred to the goat, which is set free. In today’s parasha, the hands are washed over the heifer so as not to transfer culpability. Just for the record, there are references to the red heifer in Daniel and Ezra and in Greek mythology, among others.

However, there are limits to the power of the ritual. The literary structure of verse 8 has been interpreted to mean that absolution can come only from God, not the ritual itself.

Atonement is one goal of the ritual. Some say that one of the purposes of the ritual is to trigger an investigation and find the murderer. Rambam points out logically that the murderer most likely comes from the city closest to where the body was found. All actions that make up the ritual, such as measuring to find which city is closest and finding and killing the calf, make it more likely that people will talk and someone’s memory will be jogged about something he saw, or a reluctant witness might come forward and name names.

I was drawn to the description of this ritual, because of my experience attending two funerals for murder victims, back in the ‘80s. In both cases the perpetrator was never found. One funeral was for Bertha Fishman, a widow and grandmother, who had known my father’s family since childhood. The police theorized that she surprised a thief in her home, and he killed her. The other funeral was for David Jon Louison, the son of a friend and colleague, kidnapped near his home at the age of five. His body was found six years later. At Bertha’s funeral the rabbi talked about this ritual. It was striking. I was impressed at the time that the Torah addressed this situation. My impression then was that the message was, “If no one’s responsible, then we’re all responsible.”

It’s not quite that simple, although the ritual is, in part, an expression of community accountability. The elders, on behalf of the community, acknowledge responsibility for not being able to protect the victim. With the ritual they are in a sense cleared of blame. I’m uncomfortable with even a hint of the idea of collective guilt, although this reaction might speak more to my modern sensibilities. From another prospective, it’s deeply profound that the community feels responsible. In the famous words of Rabbi Hillel, “If I am for myself alone, who will be for me?”

In my experience two souls cried out for justice. An older woman from Quincy, a child from Brockton. But there was no justice. In our desire to feel safe, we like to think that situations always tie up into neat packages. We prefer books and movies in which everyone lives happily ever after, except, of course, the bad guy, who always gets what’s coming to him. But this ritual reminds us that sometimes there isn’t a happy ending, or even – sometimes — an ending. The ritual represents a sort of accommodation with the unthinkable; someone committed the worst crime and got away with it.

There are things we find particularly difficult to acknowledge as part of our world, but at times we must look them in the eye, or in Orwell’s words, discuss them: unfortunate circumstances of which we can make no sense, ambiguity, uncertainty, the existence of evil and injustice. There are cases where that ridiculous cliché, closure, does not apply.

Where do we find comfort in such situations? Sometimes there is no comfort. For some, it might be family, work, community, religious belief, doing for others or a combination. The Louison Family took the money which people donated in an effort to help them and founded the David Jon Louison Center, a non-profit foundation whose purpose was to serve homeless families with infants and toddlers.

Rabbi David Wolpe recently posed the following questions: “Why does Lot’s wife look back to Sodom? Is it nostalgia, regret, curiosity? Rereading the story I wonder if she simply lacked the strength to begin anew. To survive pain and loss and begin again is both a burden and a blessing.”

May God give each of us strength and comfort in our times of greatest need.

Shabbat Shalom