Friday, September 5, 2008

Parashat Shof'tim - How do we take responsibility?

This week's parasha of Shof'tim (which happens to be the one I read at Robinson's arch at the Kotel for my Bar Mitzvah seven years ago), could not be more relevant, as we are in the midst of an intense presidential campaign, a time when discussions of values are in the news and in the air. Shof'tim, which constitutes the heart of the legal portion of Moshe's final address, deals mostly with interpersonal laws (mitzvot bein adam l'chavero), and specifically about setting up a just society. It begins with the famous exhortation of צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף - Justice, Justice, shall you pursue (D'varim 16:20), and continues with a number of topics under this umbrella: idolatry, courts, kingship, murder and war.
One of the most interesting, and possibly troubling situations presented in the parasha is at the end of the sh'vi'i aliyah (which I will be reading tomorrow). After giving a number of instructions about how to conquer the land, including the beautiful environmentalist message of the commandment not cut down fruit trees when attacking a city (20:19-20), for "Is a fruit tree human, to run from you in a seige," we recieve the law of the 'Egel Ha'arufa.'
We are told in D'varim 21:1-9 of the case of a corpse being found between two cities, and no evidence as to who committed the murder. The Torah provides a special ceremony in which the elders of the closest city to the location of the corpse take a calf that has never been worked and take it to the side of an unsown riverbed, where its neck is then broken. The elders wash their hands over the body of the calf and recite:
יָדֵינוּ לֹא שפכה (שָׁפְכוּ) אֶת-הַדָּם הַזֶּה וְעֵינֵינוּ לֹא רָאוּ. ח כַּפֵּר לְעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר-פָּדִיתָ יְהוָה וְאַל-תִּתֵּן דָּם נָקִי בְּקֶרֶב עַמְּךָ
יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנִכַּפֵּר לָהֶם הַדָּם. ט וְאַתָּה תְּבַעֵר הַדָּם הַנָּקִי מִקִּרְבֶּךָ כִּי-תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה
"'Our hands have not spilled this blood and our eyes did not see it. For give your people Israel that you redeemed and do not allow innocent blood to be spilled in the midst of the people,' and they should be forgiven for this blood. And thus should you extinguish the innocent blood from your midst if you do that which is right in the eyes of God."

In one vein, it is very nice and beautiful that the Torah provides a ceremony, where we can recognize the occurance of such a heinous act as a senseless murder/death of an unknown person. On the other hand, it is somewhat troubling that it seems that the elders of the city can almost too easily 'wash their hands' of the murder.
However, the existence of this ceremony in itself can send us a more positive message. (I can't remeber in whose name to teach this lesson:) One reason that this type of murder/death could occur, especially outiside of a city, is if a person were spiritually or physically outside of a community, and the leaders of the community did not make the proper effort to include those on the perimeter. This ceremony, which in any case is somber and not jubilant, could serve as a wake-up call to the elders that they must improve their efforts to reach out to those who may be excluded from the community for any reason.
We too, must heed this message; we must reach out to those in our communities who may feel on the outside, especially to guests, visitors and newcomers. As well, in this period of Elul 5768, when we are reflecting on both our personal and national actions, we must remember to include those who may escape our thoughts. May the values of justice and righteousness present in this week's parashah be near to us as we make both personal and national goals in the days and weeks ahead.

Shabbat Shalom!

P.S. (Post Shabbat): As we discuss senseless, and preventable deaths with the 'egel ha'arufah (broken-necked calf), I would like to dedicate these words to the memory of Anthony Esposito, 48, father of 3 and brother of our JTS director of Facilities Joseph Esposito who was killed in a tragic, and probably preventable crane accident this past week, the third such incident in the city in the past year. I hope and pray that preventable incidents like these can be decreased if we, and those who are in positions of power take care in matters of human life.

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