Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 14 August 2021 / 6 Elul 5781

Shoftim: Free of Criminal Liability

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Library Library Library

The Torah portion of Shoftim deals with the authorities empowered to enforce the law, and concludes with a mitzvah that devolves upon these authorities in a striking case. In this case of the discovery of a slain person left out in a field, the authorities are called into G-d’s presence, in full view of the public, so as to publicly clear themselves of the suspicion that they were lax in the performance of their duties. Because of the primacy and sanctity of human life, the authorities take some responsibility for a case where a slain person is found lying in an open field, under circumstances which constitute a downright mockery of the enforcers of the law.

First, the distance between the discovered corpse and the adjacent cities are measured to determine which municipality is most likely the one to be held accountable. Then, the elders of that city take a young calf to a valley, and the calf is killed by a blow to its neck. In the presence of Kohanim, the elders of the city wash their hands and recite the following words of exoneration: “Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes have not seen him. Grant atonement to Your people Israel, whom You redeemed, O G-d, and do not place innocent blood into the midst of Your people Israel!”

The Sages dispute whether the “him” that the elders declare not to have seen is the murdered one or the murderer. According to the first opinion, the elders are disclaiming responsibility for not seeing to it that he was sent from the city with an escort, as if to say, “We did not see him and let him leave without an escort and food.” According to the second opinion, the elders disclaim responsibility for allowing a murderer to go free, as if to say, “We did not see him and close an eye to his guilt!”

In the first opinion, the elders are saying that they did not allow the man to leave in such dire need that he resorts to highway robbery, thus causing himself to be killed by a slayer in self-defense. Their momentous declaration is: “In our society, no one is left in such dire need that he is compelled by poverty to commit a crime.”

The elders curiously seek atonement not just for themselves, or even for the people living in their times, but for G-d’s people whom He redeemed from Egypt. Those people were redeemed so that they would build a national life for the sake of G-d, to develop a social life based on every aspect on the Will of G-d, conducted with love and justice. The people alive during this declaration have proven themselves as worthy examples G-d’s people, such that if and when even one of their members were driven to poverty to commit a crime, their representatives can stand over this corpse and declare in good conscience, “In our society, no one is compelled by poverty to commit a crime.”

This would represent a monumental triumph for G-d’s Torah of justice and mercy. A triumph so great, that no matter how gravely the generations of the past (from the Exodus until the present) had sinned, they would find atonement as the ancestors of such a society. The merit of a state based on such brotherly love is so great that it retroactively ennobles the roots from which it emerged.

The final killing of the calf gives expression to the utmost seriousness with which the Jewish community and its representatives regard the murderer, quelling any sense of negligence in not bringing the killer to justice. The act expresses the fact that one who murders loses his right to life, and that Divine providence will execute upon him justice that man could not.

  • Sources: Commentary, Devarim 21:1-8

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