Parshat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)
Parshat Shoftim deals mainly with the structure of government in the kingdom that would be established in Israel in the future. It begins by outlining a tribal judicial system for each city in the kingdom, which is subordinated to a larger central judicial system to which the entire nation is subject. The Torah also commands us to appoint a king, who would be responsible for administering national policy and military affairs. Rigorous checks and balances are applied to these two bodies, and those at the helm are warned against taking bribes, perverting justice, totalitarianism, and arrogance.
The portion ends with a special halacha (law) concerning the case of a human corpse found in a field, in which the killer had not been identified. The Torah commands us to take a series of actions: First, the elders of the city closest to the murdered person would take a calf that had never been harnessed to a yoke over to a river surrounded by fields that had never been plowed, and then, they would behead the calf. Some of the elders of the Sanhedrin would come to the site, and upon their arrival, the city elders would appear in front of them, wash their hands, and say “our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see…” (Devarim / Deuteronomy 21:7).
Many have contemplated the meaning of this ceremony and the many symbols associated with it. Why must a young calf be taken out, and why must it be taken out to a river through a field that had never been used for agriculture? Why humiliate the city elders and force them to declare that they had no hand in the matter? Had anyone seriously fathomed that they were involved in any way?
We can safely assume that the ceremony was performed with a young calf that had never been worked, in a desolate place, to symbolize the terrible tragedy of a person who had died before having had the chance to build a family and see future generations emerge. However, the significance of the elders’ declaration remains a mystery.
Talmudic sources offer us two explanations. The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud explain that the leaders of the city wanted to declare that they can’t be blamed for the murder – not even indirectly. This is because they did not send off the hapless individual without food and water.
In today’s terms, this would be like declaring that the highways were well-lit, the traffic lights worked properly, security and police forces had acted appropriately and everyone could feel safe. This interpretation focuses on the role of communal leadership in ensuring the safety of the murdered individual.
A different, far more comprehensive interpretation is offered in the Jerusalem Talmud, which was authored in the Land of Israel. This interpretation suggests that the elders needed to declare that the murderer did not leave the city unaccompanied, or without food and water.
Everyone understood that the identity of the murderer was, as of yet, unknown, so this type of declaration means that the city made sure that anyone who passed through the city had enough food and water, and was properly accompanied.
Here, however, they raise the bar of leadership to a very high level. The system of governance promises that no individual would be so hungry that he or she would ever harm another.
If we combine these two interpretations, we see that the system is declaring that it had protected wayfarers from violent people, by taking steps to prevent them from harming others, and by removing the motivation to harm others. The declaration might also harbor a promise that the judicial system was not forgiving in previous assault cases. All of this is part of the elders’ commitment towards the city’s inhabitants and the Creator of the Universe. They must have firmly believed in their leadership skills to have uttered such a pronouncement
Our rabbis may be teaching us to understand the underlying reasons for the violence that existed at that time, and perhaps even the violence that exists today.
It all begins with accompanying the murders, or in other words, the group of people who could harm others. We are all part of this group. This “accompaniment” takes the form of a judicial system that teaches us to take violence seriously.
More importantly, it takes the form of an educational system that can teach us to control ourselves and treat others and their possessions with respect. If we exemplify a zero-tolerance policy towards violence of any kind, our children will understand that there are red lines never to be crossed. The more determined we adults are at conveying the message of the sanctity of human life, any human life, the more confidently we can wash our hands and say that we played no part in spilling blood anywhere in the country.
Would you like to receive Rabbi Stav’s weekly Dvar Torah and updates from OTS direct to your inbox?