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To Life

By: Rabbi Uri Cohen

At the end of this week's parashah, we read of a somewhat bizarre ceremony that is set up in response to an unsolved murder mystery.  The Torah tells us that if a dead body is found and it is not known who killed the person, the elders of the closest city should take a calf who has never before performed work, bring her to a wadi which is also unworked, and behead the calf there.  The elders then wash their hands, proclaim their innocence and request that Hashem atone for the blood that was spilled. 

What is the purpose of this strange set of instructions?  Is this whole elaborate ceremony of the eglah arufa set up only so that the elders can (literally) wash their hands of the affair, close the file and go home?  Why, then, is there such a specified process?  What is the import of beheading the calf?  Why such an emphasis on the animal and land not having worked?

The commentators offer two main approaches to explain what is going on.  Both emphasize not the desire to wash our hands of guilt, but rather the need to take responsibility.

 Ibn Ezra views the ceremony as a ritual of atonement.  The elders ask God to forgive the nation "who mistakenly did not guard the dangerous roads".  According to Ibn Ezra, faced with catastrophe, the elders look not whom they can blame but where they themselves are blameworthy.  The ceremony is a wake-up call to remind them that they too, might have played a role, and to try and prevent potential future disasters.

Rashi understands the mitzvah similarly, and points to the symbolism in the ceremony.  The death of the innocent calf, who had not yet had a chance to work or bear fruit, highlights the loss of the innocent person who has died, without a chance to accomplish his tasks in life.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, surely witnessing this ceremony and the animal's death could not but impress on the viewer the enormity of death and the responsibility one has to do all one can to prevent it.

A second approach to the mitzvah views it in a much more practical light.   The Rambam suggests that the main goal of the ceremony is not atonement, but rather the finding of the guilty party.  As the elders set up the ceremony, word of the murder spreads, interest in the case abounds, and as such, the possibility of finding useful information that might lead to the criminal increases exponentially. Rambam suggests that the beheading happens at a site which is never to be worked to motivate the land's owner to do all in his power to find the culprit before he loses his land.

The mitzvah of eglah arufa teaches us about the supreme value that Torah puts on human life. It is everyone's responsibility to both find those who cause loss of life and to do all we can to prevent future losses.

Shabbat Shalom




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