Wednesday, August 31, 2011






And all the elders of that city, who are nearest to the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley.  And they shall speak and say:  ‘Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.  O Lord, forgive Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, and do not allow innocent blood to remain in the midst of Your people Israel.’  And the blood shall be forgiven them.  So shall you put away the innocent blood from your midst, when you shall do that which is right in the eyes of the Lord. (Deut.  21: 6-9).

These verses conclude the ceremony of expiation for an unsolved murder.  The ritual was elaborate and profoundly impressive.  Representatives of the Sanhedrin would determine the location of the city closest to the unknown corpse.  Its elders would take a heifer with which no work had been done. They would bring it to a rough valley that would never be plowed nor sown again, and break the neck of the heifer.  Then the elders would make their solemn declaration: ‘Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.’ (BT Sotah 44b ff.).

The immediate implication of the dramatic rite of expiation is the acceptance of responsibility for unsolved homicides.  The Sages ask the obvious question: Could one possibly think that the elders of the city might have been involved in the crime?  Why should they have to say:  Our hands have not shed this blood neither have our eyes seen It’? According to the Sages, the Torah implies that the leaders of their community are responsible for the welfare and safety of visitors.  Indeed, they were obligated to provide food, drink and lodging for strangers who needed these things, a precedent established by the Patriarch Abraham.  The Hebrew acronym for this obligation is eishelakhilah [food], sheti’ah [drink] and linah [lodging].  Alternatively, the final Hebrew letter mem of the acronym stands for levayah [escort]. ’ (BT Sotah 44b ff.).

The practice of providing escorts for Jews when they left the city limit was well established.  During the early Middle Ages, for example, when Europe was infested with highway robbers, unescorted travel was extremely perilous.  Travelers would be robbed, held for ransom or murdered.  Because the mitzvah of ransoming captives [pidyon shevuyim] was taken very seriously, robber barons would depend on ransoming kidnapped travelers for a significant portion of their incomes.  Accordingly, Jewish communities throughout Western and Central Europe developed an elaborate network of armed escorts to protect Jewish travelers.  Irving Agus, an expert on the economic history of Medieval Jewry, has written that the effectiveness of this network enabled western European Jews to travel extensively and thus corner the import-export market. He has also shown that the only way that people even as powerful as Charlemagne could get their important mail across Europe was with the help of the Jewish escort network.

This ancient practice helps explain the pronouncement of the elders in our text.  Jews accepted responsibility for the safety of strangers even after their departure from the local community.  For this reason, the elders would have to declare publicly that the unsolved murder was not the result of their negligence. 

As important as the lesson of taking responsibility for others is, our text teaches another, equally important, lesson.  The Torah’s location of the law of the unsolved murder is significant.  The laws of nondefensive warfare, known as milchemet reshut precede it. The discussion of mandatory warfare [milchemet mitzvah] follows it.   Why do the ritual of the heifer and the declarations of the elders interrupt the Torah’s exposition of the laws of warfare?  What is the connection? What is the significance of the juxtaposition of these apparently unrelated topics?

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein has noted two striking and distressing effects of war.  The first is the unavoidable anonymity of the individual soldier.   Soldiers function as parts of a disciplined military machine and not as individuals.  They cannot come and go as they please.  They cannot do as they please.  To permit them to do so would be catastrophic.  The second distressing effect is that many soldiers, exposed to death and injury, lose their sensitivity to the value of human life. 

Rabbi Lichtenstein suggests that an important function of the ritual surrounding the unsolved murder is as a corrective both of individual anonymity and also of the loss of sensitivity.   By definition, the corpse abandoned in the field is anonymous, bearing no identifying marks.    No relatives have come forward to search for the missing person in the cities closest to the places he was believed to have visited.  The corpse was invisible to society.  The victim of the homicide was simply a corpse, a nameless statistic, without identifiable personal relationships.  He appeared to have been unnoticed, unmissed and unimportant in life. The Torah requires an end to this insensitivity, by showing symbolically that the community is the poorer for his loss. It elevates him to the center of a great drama and invests his death with permanent effects.  A life cut off without its hopes, dreams and potential fulfilled is like the valley that must forever be left unproductive and barren.  The lesson is the importance of the individual and the sanctity of human life, no matter how unimportant that life may seem to others.  The Torah’s location of the ceremony of expiation for an unsolved homicide in the middle of the laws of warfare reinforces this notion. War, by its very nature, necessarily negates the sanctity of life. The ritual for accepting responsibility for not preventing an avoidable homicide affirms its sanctity.

 If this is true of the value and sanctity of an invisible, anonymous individual, how much more so is it true of those around us, who love us,  live with us and/or                                                                                                                                                                                       serve us?  Emanuel Levinas, the eminent French Talmudist and one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, bemoaned the reduction of the other person to his or her function.   People are often identified by what they do rather than by who they are—the male carrier, policeman, garbage collector, sanitation worker, and so on.  We notice them and sometimes interact with them, but do not bother to find out their names.  They are effectively anonymous and effaced, reduced to their functionality. They represent le meme, the non-unique, the faceless same, the non-other, in the sense that they have been reduced to their function in our lives, an extension of our own personal agendas.

Sadly, even the closest are invisible in many families, serving the needs of the family system, their deepest feelings ignored, their most pressing personal needs disregarded.   Spouses have complained to me of their of invisibility.  “My husband listens to my words, but cannot hear what I am saying, has no clue as to how I am feeling.  We have lived together for years, have brought up children together, and have been physically intimate. But deep inside of me I feel invisible—and it hurts terribly.”   Children sometimes tell me the same thing: “ My parents just don’t get me.  They push me to be what they want me to be and cannot hear what I want to be.  Sometimes I wonder if they really know who I am.”

Levinas insists on viewing the other as a commanding presence, a summons to responsibility, needing respect, attention and validation—precisely because of his or her otherness.  It is simply immoral to efface the other, to reduce the other to a function of our personal agendas.  The other is of infinite value—a window into the [Divine] Other.

Without specifically referring to our text, Levinas has grasped both its lessons.  Let us hope that we, too, shall have learned those vital lessons.

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