Biblical lessons

After a weekend of tragic violence on our streets, our society is in desperate need of a soul-searching session.

Israel Police officer 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Israel Police officer 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Deuteronomy (21:1) describes a ceremony that is performed in the event of murder. If a murdered person is found lying in the field, and the killer is unknown, the elders of the nearest town are commanded to come to the scene of the crime and to declare “our hands did not spill this innocent blood.” The public ceremony includes the decapitation of a calf.
According to later rabbinic commentators, the rationale behind the ceremony – including the gory killing of a calf – is aimed at sparking public introspection and discourse over ultimate culpability. The elders’ declaration – that their hands did not participate in the murder – is not to be taken literally. They are not suspected of actually committing murder.
Rather, the leaders, together with all other members of the community, are asked to reexamine their own behavior and determine whether in some way, whether directly or indirectly, they contributed through words or deeds to an atmosphere that,in some way made possible the unthinkable – the vicious murder of a human being.
After a weekend of tragic violence on our streets, our society is in desperate need of a similar sort of soul-searching session.
We have an obligation to ask ourselves how it is possible that a 36-year-old father of two could be stabbed to death as his wife looked on in horror. His only “crime” was to ask a group of teens to quiet down.
We must ask ourselves how it can be that the young men who stabbed a 17-year-old man in a Rehovot park on Saturday night could so coldly reject his very humanity. This weekend’s string of homicides included incidents in Rishon Lezion, the Beduin town of Aruar and Nazareth.
Have we in some small way, through our words or deeds, helped to create a society that is overly callous, violent and egotistical? Have we contributed enough of our time, energy and abilities to helping confront the kinds of phenomena that breed violence? As citizens in our towns do we participate in neighborhood patrols and support the local police and municipalities? As parents do we make sure we know what our teenage children are doing when they are away from the house and do we enforce curfews?
Do our schools foster mutual respect and the use of peaceful means to resolve conflicts? Though it would be anachronistic to return to the biblical “decapitated calf” ceremony, we should nevertheless borrow its central theme: introspection that leads to positive action and societal change.
This is not the first time we have been collectively shocked by expressions of crude brutality in our society. Special committees have been set up such as the inter-ministerial committee against violence created in 2005 and headed by former Israel Police Insp.-Gen. Shlomo Aharonishky. In 1988, our government founded the Israel Anti-Drug Authority to fight drug and alcohol abuse, in part due to the violent crime such abuse generates. Dozens of studies have been conducted to determine the most effective ways of combating violence.
Experts in the field know what needs to be done. Energy and resources need to be channeled into four areas: Prevention, education, enforcement and community empowerment.
But so far this know-how has not been sufficiently applied. That’s because there has not been a collective, concerted effort on all levels – from our educational institutions and crime enforcers, to our community leaders and municipalities – to fight violence.
In the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 47), the rabbis taught that due to a sharp rise in the frequency of murders, the “decapitated calf” ceremony was discontinued. Apparently, it had lost its ability to shock people into introspection and soul-searching. People had grown insensitive to the phenomenon of murder and could not be aroused to fight it. Therefore, it no longer made sense to go through the motions of performing a meaningless ceremony. Indeed, by inviting cynicism carrying on would have probably done more harm than good.
Thankfully, we are all still appalled by the horrific incidents that took place this weekend. We must learn to channel this shock into a constructive, sustained, multi-pronged campaign to fight violence – before indifference sets in.