2018-08-15 / Religion Column

A simple act of kindness can save lives

Head of School/ Foxman Torah Institute

Parashat Shoftim
Deut. 16:18-21:9

The Torah in this week’s parsha contains an important, yet difficult to understand mitzvah known as eglah arufah. Here’s what happens in short—a person is found murdered between two cities with no witnesses coming forward. The elders and judges of the cities go out and measure which city the corpse was found closest to. Once determined, the elders of the closer city bring a calf down to a nearby valley and break its neck there. They then wash their hands over the calf and proclaim: “Our hands have not spilled this blood and our eyes did not see.”

Now we know that G-d is perfect and the Torah is perfect, so what is the explanation given for this rather peculiar mitzvah? Some opinions (i.e. Tanchuma) have this mitzvah listed among the short list of chukim (Torah laws beyond human comprehension), therefore classic Jewish thought says it needs no explanation, rather, we have blind faith in G-d and do the mitzvah simply because He commanded us so. Nevertheless, Rashi writes the purpose of this mitzvah is to act as an atonement for the murder, while Rambam (Maimonides) writes that its purposely bizarre ceremony serves to raise public awareness of the death, so that witnesses may come forward and help solve the mystery.

Perhaps even more bizarre than the mitzvah itself, is the statement that the elders make proclaiming “Our hands have not spilled this blood and our eyes did not see,” as the Mishna in Sotah 45B asks, “Would it even enter one’s mind to think that the elders killed him?”

To which the Mishna as explained by Rashi gives the following fascinating answer— of course we don’t suspect that the leaders of the city killed him, rather what it means is that they say they didn’t see him leaving town without food and someone to escort him out. Upon further analysis, however, only the first part of Rashi seems to answer the question fully. Rashi clearly states the elders “culpability” is referring to something much less egregious than murder, but only the first reason, namely not giving food to someone before he leaves town could account, albeit very indirectly, for the fact that he was ultimately murdered.

Here’s what may have happened, according to Rashi—he left town, he had no food to eat, he was forced to try to steal to survive, and was murdered in the act of stealing or after he was caught. In effect, the Torah would be pointing a finger at the elders of the city saying, “look what happened now all because you didn’t give him proper provisions when he left your city.” They thus proclaim we did not knowingly let him leave our care without proper food provisions for the road.

However, the second reason Rashi gives seems incomprehensible. How does the mitzvah of accompanying someone out of your city (levaya) protect him once he is on the road far away from the city? The only logical answer to this question is that Rashi is teaching us an incredible lesson here. Namely, that had the person been accompanied out of the city, he would have been shown that at least someone in the city cared for him enough to do that mitzvah for him. The lack of caring, however, could have caused him to lose the struggle for his own life while being murdered because of lack of strength and energy to fight on for his life.

This D’var Torah requires us to carefully consider the arguments and logic here, and by all means please reread it if it sounds like too much of a stretch, and if you come up with a different answer or disagree with the logic, please reach out to me. I would love to discuss it further with you. But after digesting this, think about what Rashi is telling us: A simple act of chesed (kindness) gives someone not only a good feeling, but can spell the difference for him or her literally between life and death, and certainly infinite other lesser extreme scenarios and manifestations than this apply to all of us and those around us on a daily basis in life.

May we all merit to do acts of kindness for each other, and all rejoice together in Yerushalayim as we hasten the coming of the ultimate redemption speedily in our days, fulfilling the words of G-d through the Navi Yeshaya in his prophecy in this week’s haftorah, “Ma Naavu Al Heharim Raglei Mevaser (how beautiful are the footsteps coming over the mountain of the herald of Moshiach)…Ki Nicham Hashem Amo, Ga’al Yerushalayim (for Hashem has comforted His nation, and redeemed Jerusalem). s rydavidowitz@ftiyeshiva.org

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of “Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary” from CCAR Press. Rabbi Yanklowitz is also the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash; the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek; the founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute; and the founder and president of YATOM. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.

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