Parshat Shoftim (5770)

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At the end of this week’s parsha we read about the course of action to be taken in a scenario where the body of a murder victim is discovered in open land outside a city and there is no clue as to the identity of the killer.

The Torah prescribes a strange procedure: The Elders and Judges are summoned to measure the proximity of the corpse to the nearest city or village. The elders of that city alone then take a young heifer which has never been used for work, and they take it to a valley which has never been worked or had crops grown. The animal is killed, and the city elders wash their hands over the animal, and make a pronouncement: “Our hands have not spilled this blood (of the victim) and our eyes did not see. Hashem, atone for Your people … do not place innocent blood in the midst of Your people Israel.

In his Guide to the Perplexed Maimonides explains that this whole process was meant to create a tumult in the nearby towns and villages. The investigation, the bringing of the elders, the measuring, the killing of a heifer in a valley etc all ensured that everyone heard about the murder – that it would not slip by unnoticed. This was especially important when the victim was an “unknown” – a penniless itinerant, maybe a beggar without family or friends.

The symbolism of the young heifer and the un-worked valley are also pertinent. Here is an animal which has not born fruit, killed in a valley which has not produced fruit. The message is clear – the murder victim had his or her life snatched away before they were able to “bear fruit” to achieve their life goals.

But the most interesting thing is the answer to an obvious question, “Does anyone really suspect the venerable city elders of committing this murder!? Why do they need to pronounce their innocence in public?”

And the answer is very telling: What they are actually affirming is that they did not know this person, and did not consciously let him leave town without food or a safety escort. Letting a poor person leave town hungry and vulnerable would be a terrible thing to have happened in their city, and they would bear some of the guilt.

This mitzvah of caring for those in our midst is considered to be one of the greatest. Our Sages tell us that it is even greater than welcoming the Divine Presence. So next time we see a stranger in shul, let us take that extra minute to welcome them and make sure they are taken care of,  be it for a Shabbat meal,  help finding the place in the Siddur, or simply a listening ear.

Shabbat Shalom – Rabbi Zalman Lent


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