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Parsha Shoftim

09/05/2019 08:38:52 PM


The conclusion of the Parsha discusses the concept of "egla arufa," the scenario when a dead body is found between two cities and there is no evidence of the cause of death.  The Torah rules that the city closest to the body is held "accountable" for the death, and the city as a whole must undergo a unique atonement process of beheading a calf and declaring that they have no hand in this death and are not culpable whatsoever.  Seeking publicity and great attention, the Torah mandates that this atonement process be done in front of all to see.  (Interestingly, the Rambam is of the opinion that the point of the publicity is a pragmatic tactic to elicit some rumors or evidence of a possible murderer.)  Representing the whole city, it is the "elders," or Torah scholars of the city who actually perform the act and make the declaration that "our hands did not murder this body."  Rashi asks that it is inconceivable for one to wonder if the elders of the city committed a murder- so then why is there a need for them to make such a strange declaration?  Rashi famously explains that the declaration is not meant to preclude the possibility of actual murder, but it means instead that they treated their guest properly and ensured that he left town with ample supply of food and drink for his journey.  The elders therefore exonerate themselves from the possibility that they had not escorted their guest properly, which would somehow be considered a hand in the murder.  Many commentators question this explanation, because it seems ludicrous to suggest that not escorting a guest, however inconsiderate it may be, should be tantamount to murder!  If a murderer planned on committing this atrocity, what difference would it have made if the victim had food in his pocket? 

There are those who suggest a most novel interpretation for the meaning of this Rashi. Escorting a guest is a kindness which goes far beyond the obvious result of supplying the guest with supplies for the journey.  It is really an altruistic act of showing care and respect for another human being, of respecting the needs and concerns of someone one.  By walking the person a short distance and imbuing a sense of reluctance in the act of separation, in addition to worrying about the guests supplies and satisfying his needs, the host shows the guest that he matters and is worthy of being cared for and pampered.  It is an expression of inner closeness that a host feels for his guests, regardless of how well that had known each other previously.  The effects of this act are most apparent in the essence of the guest himself and not only in the bulges in his pockets.  He leaves with feelings of worthiness, of being a person who deserves such acute respect and royal treatment.  His confidence is bursting and a smile is undoubtedly painted on his face.  Additionally, he leaves with indelible impressions of connections to the town he had visited and the people he encountered there.  The disparity between two travelers on the empty road, one who was treated with respect and escorted royally, and one who was not, is very conspicuous and obvious for all to see.  One holds his head high, whistles as he goes, radiates happiness, and exudes a feeling of control and confidence, whereas the other looks lonely, detached, weak, and vulnerable.  If you were a murderer, who would you pursue as a victim?  Moreover, which one would fight for his life and stand up for himself?  This is how escorting a guest may actually save his life, and the elders therefore declare that they did a fine job in this regard and the murder has no link to them.

The message of the Torah in this parsha is one of total communal responsibility and accountability.  The implicit directive of the Torah is that a dead body in the middle of a road is the city's problem, and no one can claim innocence by saying "What did I do?"  Based on the interpretation above, this lesson is all the more powerful.  We are all responsible for each other's feelings; we can all affect the self-confidence of another human being.  If some one's performance or behavior is inhibited or hindered because of issues of confidence and self-worth, than it is our responsibility to reach out to them and change that.  Additionally, the Torah is raising our awareness of the potency of a small act of kindness and an appreciation for the far-reaching effects they can have.  One can never know what a kind word may do or the impact that an escort will have.  We are therefore left with an inspiring idea from the Torah of how to value our relationships and how to reach out to all people in helping them be strong, healthy, vibrant, and happy with their lives. 

Thu, June 20 2024 14 Sivan 5784