Parshat Shoftim: Seeking justice while cultivating compassion

Sarah Gordon

Sarah Gordon spent a year post-college learning in the Midreshet Lindenbaum Educator’s Program (2006-2007). She is the Director of Israel Guidance and Experiential Education at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls.

Parshat Shoftim concludes with the atonement ritual of the Eglah Arufah, or beheaded calf (Devarim 21: 1-9), which outlines the process judges and elders of the closest city undergo when an abandoned body is found. Among the more striking elements of the ritual are the city leaders breaking the calf’s neck in the wadi, washing their hands over its body, and making a declaration of “our hands did not shed this blood” (Devarim 21:7).

Maimonides (Guide to the Perplexed III, 40) sees the Eglah Arufah ritual as having a utilitarian purpose. The publicity that comes with measuring which city is closest, the procession of leaders down to the wadi, and the shocking nature of the ritual, will cause people to talk more about the case, increasing awareness and the number of helpful tips towards solving the murder.

While this makes logical sense, I am curious about the symbolism of the ritual. Which emotions is it supposed to evoke for the city leadership and the people of that town? What are the lessons and takeaways for us today?

There are a few possibilities for what the mashal or parable of breaking the calf’s neck could symbolize and who is represented by the calf and the elders (see Rav Amnon Bazak, Starting Point, Parshat Shoftim).

One option is that the calf signifies the unpunished murderer, with the elders acting out the murderer’s execution. Having the city elders perform what they should have done highlights the miscarriage of justice that occurred, with the judges failing their responsibility to uphold the rule of law.

Another option is the ritual reenacts the murder of the victim, with the elders playing the role of the murderer. The choice of a young calf that has never worked underscores the victim’s innocence, and the barren wadi emphasizes the end of the victim’s line and how they will never be able to have additional children or contribute more to the world.

Here, the ritual focuses on the enormity of the loss, the ending of a world (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5), rather than failed legalistic responsibilities. Having the elders play the role of the murderer raises the question of what could have avoided this tragedy, placing the burden of responsibility on city leadership.

The emphasis on responsibility is also seen in the declaration made at the end of the ritual of “our hands did not shed this blood” (Devarim 21:7). Whose blood was not shed by the elders? The Talmud Bavli (Sotah 46b) attributes it to the victim, a declaration of absolution that city leaders did not fail to protect the traveler by sending them away without food or an escort.

Alternatively, the Yerushalmi (Sotah 9:6) views it as the blood of the perpetrator, a declaration of due diligence by city leaders that they did not have the murderer in their custody and allow them to go free.

Most fascinating is the explanation of the Malbim (quoted by Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Sefer Devarim, Parshat Shoftim), who identifies the blood as referring to the murderer, but adapts the disclaimer previously used for the victim.

The Malbim states in the voices of the leaders: “We were not indirectly responsible in this murder on account of not providing the murderer with food for the lack of which he was driven to commit this capital crime…” (Malbim, Devarim 21:7).

In this explanation, the city leaders acknowledge responsibility not just for their failure to punish the murderer or protect the victim, but also for the social reality existing in their community that could have led a starving individual to take the drastic step of murder.

This broader outlook allows us to foster compassion for the individual who committed this horrible crime, while still focusing on the justice that needs to happen. It also expands the lessons of the ritual for the city leaders; crime does not happen in a vacuum and it is incumbent on a community to take care of all of its members, and have the social infrastructure in place to help struggling individuals.

This meshing of din and rachamim, justice and mercy, can be a helpful mindset for us as we enter the month of Elul. It can be easy to look at ourselves and at others in black and white categories of crime and punishment, law and accountability. However, it is more helpful for personal and communal growth to look at the whole person, cultivating nuance and compassion and allowing for din (justice) to be tempered by rachamim (mercy).

Shabbat Shalom!


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