Parshat Shoftim: Murder of an individual – a shock to the nation

The more closely we examine the Torah’s instructions in this case, the more we discover the incredible significance of human life in its eyes.

September 8, 2016 19:37
3 minute read.

Framed with rich crimson red, the figure of the king, robed in black, white and blue, exudes pure and simple sincerity. (photo credit: PAINTING BY YORAM RAANAN)


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In Shoftim, Moses our Master instructs the nation on basic principles regarding the military and war. He offers guidance on how to settle the land and explains the correct way to lead the community and societal life. Toward the end of the portion, he deals with a horrifying case: the discovery of a corpse of someone murdered outside a city, and no one knows who the murderer is.

The more closely we examine the Torah’s instructions in this case, the more we discover the incredible significance of human life in its eyes. Dozens of detailed and complex halachot (Jewish laws) have been determined regarding these instructions. Their purposes were to shock people and instill in them the significance and sanctity of life; to allow the leaders to examine and clear themselves of responsibility for not preventing this murder; and to make enough noise to perhaps find someone who knows something about the case who could provide a clue to help find the murderer.

Here are the tasks the nation must perform in this case: First, a few of the members of the High Court in Jerusalem go down to the scene of the crime. Their job is to measure the area around the scene and find the city closest to the corpse, because that local court will be responsible for fixing and maintaining the roads in such a way as to prevent similar tragic cases. Moreover, even if it is obvious which city is the closest to the corpse, the members of the High Court are still obligated to conduct the measurements and ascertain technically that this is indeed the closest city. This is to emphasize the general responsibility of the High Court and of the entire nation to prevent these sorts of cases in the future.

Afterward, the elder (respected) members of the city go out to “nahal eitan,” a riverbed that has not been cultivated.

They bring with them a heifer under two years old still incapable of delivering offspring. The elders bring the calf to the riverbed and behead it. From this moment on, it is forbidden to cultivate this riverbed forever.

This severe and unusual act is meant to be a shocking experience for all who witness or hear of it, which will underline the tragedy of the murder. Performing this act says: Just as this young heifer will no longer be able to bear offspring, or plow and work land, and just as the earth of this riverbed will never bear fruit, so this murdered individual will never have offspring or be able to perform good deeds benefiting others.

After this startling experience, the kohanim (priests) and city elders wash their hands over the decapitated heifer. This symbolic act is meant to express the fulfillment of their responsibilities and that they do not bear direct or indirect guilt for the murder. They also express this in words which the Torah instructs them to say: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [this crime]” (Deuteronomy 21:7).

And they request: “Atone for Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, O Lord, and lay not [the guilt of] innocent blood among your people Israel” (Deut. 21:8) – meaning, do not allow the guilty sin of the murder of this innocent man to fall on the closest city, or on the entire nation.

Again and again, we see how incredibly important the Torah considers each and every human life to be. The purpose of God’s Torah is to preserve human life and direct it in the correct and proper path. And when one person kills another, this negates the very basic foundation of the Torah and its goal – sanctification of life. 

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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