Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
41 Mitzvoth… establishing judicial and religious institutions to facilitate formation and management of Israel, God’s special nation(ohr lagoyim-a light unto the nations of the world): court system; judges and police; supreme court; priests and Levites; king…idolatrous trees prohibited…punishment for idol worship… rights of priests and Levites… prohibited practices: child sacrifice; divination; sorcery; fortune telling…on prophecy…cities of refuge…laws relating to witnesses…military exemptions…giving peace a chance…destruction of fruit-bearing trees is prohibited during war…egla arufa ceremony for an unsolved murder
Monarchy in Israel: commandment or concession?
“When you come to the land that God your Lord is giving you, and you have occupied and settled it, and you will say ‘we would like to appoint a king just like all the nations around us’ you will appoint the king whom God your lord shall choose…from among your brethren…The king must not accumulate many horses so as not to bring the people back to Egypt to get more horses…and he must not have many wives…he must write a copy of this Torah as a scroll [that] must be with him and he shall read from it all the days of his life…he will then learn to be in awe of God…and carefully keep every word of this Torah and these rules…so that he not begin to feel superior to his brethren…and will not stray from the mandate…”
Rabbi B.S. Jacobson discusses the question of whether this phraseology represents a concession in anticipation of possible future event or whether the text is requiring establishment of Kingship in Israel.
Rav Yehuda in the Talmud considers Kingship in Israel a Torah commandment, as are building a sanctuary and eradication of Amelek. Rav Nehray, on the other hand, views these words as anticipating a time when Israel will resent being different and will want to have a King like everybody else--and are advised that their request is acceptable with certain conditions. A Midrash expresses strong opposition: “Said the Holy One Blessed He: My children, I thought to deliver you from the subjugation of kingdom, and now you turn around and desire it for yourselves!”
Rav Saadya Gaon, Ibn Ezra and Ramban understand the text to mean that it is permissible, but not mandatory, to appoint a monarch. Abrabanel -- who both witnessed and experienced royalty’s corrupt and arbitrary behavior and generally demoralizing influences--reasons that there is no need for a king in Israel to be commander of armed forces and supreme legislative authority and supreme judicial tribunal (often sentencing and punishing without justice). For one, kingship could only be considered after the land was conquered and settled. Furthermore, Israel’s Judges were competent to lead the nation in battle. Regarding legislative authority, a national leader in Israel is himself subject to Torah rule and has no authority to institute new or change existing laws. Judicial function is vested in the court system and the Sanhedrin (Supreme Court).
Should the nation at some time in the future demand monarchy, the Torah delineates its regulation. This is similar to the treatment of a gentile woman prisoner of war who is permitted to an Israelite unable to control his passion but only under strict rules. In both instances the Torah, recognizing human frailty, provides a regulated avenue of behavior.
Rambam stands almost alone in concluding that it is a commandment to appoint a king to rule over us, to whom we must be obedient and whom we must acknowledge with respect and reverence, so long as he is law-abiding.
Biblical scholar Rabbi David Hoffman points to the qualitative difference in Israel’s kings. Other nations typically appoint a hero/conqueror who then distributes land to his loyal followers and himself. This is in contrast to monarchy in Israel that could exist only after settlement in the land when it became clear that the land was a gift from God. The (relatively few) ideal Kings like David, Hezekiah and Josiah concentrated on purging pagan cults and enforcing Torah rule in Israel.
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag thinks that this is about political leadership in general (be it democracy, monarchy, theocracy) and that the Torah discusses the form of government that was prevalent at that time. As such, the “laws regarding the king could apply equally to the political leader in any system of government”.
The case of the unsolved murder—egla arufa
If a chalal (corpse) is found in an open field when the murderer is unknown, elders and judges (including members of the High Court in Jerusalem) are called upon to measure its distance to the closest city. The elders of that city are required to bring an egla (female calf less than two years old) that has never been worked (and never pulled a load while wearing a yoke) to a nearby nachal aysan (swiftly flowing stream or wadi or harsh or fertile) where they decapitate the calf by striking the back of its neck (arufa).Perhaps this ritual links to the Israelites’ being characterized as a stiff-necked people.
Precision and persistence are necessary. To arrive at the correct measurement the judges may have to climb hills and descend into valleys. Sometimes even an inch difference determines which city is nearest.
The measurement is taken from the city to the nose of the corpse, the place through which the soul was breathed into the first man (Sota 44b). As in measuring for an eiruv, a rope fifty amahs in length is used to measure the distance. An amah is one and a half to two feet long.
The priests (whose responsibilities include resolving litigation and determining leprous signs) step forward. The elders wash their hands over the decapitated calf and say “our hands have not spilled this blood and our eyes have not witnessed it”. The priests than pray “Forgive your people whom You, God, have liberated and do not allow the guilt for innocent blood remain with your people Israel”. Through this ceremony “the blood shall be atoned for and you shall rid yourself of the guilt of the innocent blood in your midst because you have done what is morally right in God’s eyes.”
The egla arufa calf is not a sacrifice, but a form of atonement—perhaps expiation for the blood that has been shed and absorbed by the Land. The ritual is observed only in the Land of Israel proper and in the Jewish lands east of the Jordan River. The area surrounding the Nachal Aysan may never be worked or sown like the corpse that can never yield offspring.
Understand the ceremony
• Rambam, ever the rationalist, reasons that the purpose is to find the murderer. In most cases the murderer likely came from that vicinity and the publicity relating to the investigation, including the arrival of prominent elders from Jerusalem would create a buzz that gets people talking. This publicity will result in the emergence of eye-witness testimony or other relevant information.
• Ramban disagrees and views the ritual an attempt to attain atonement on some level.
• Abrabanel and others cited by Nechama Leibowitz see the ritual as an attempt to shock the population out of the indifference that typically accompanies news of the death (and miseries) of others. In his poem, City of Slaughter, Chaim Nachman Bialik depicts how Nature continues unaffected in the wake of a bloody pogrom with gory human remains lying in the streets: “the sun shone, the acacia blossomed and the slaughterer slaughtered”. Unlike Nature, Man who is created in the Divine image needs to realize the horror of murder. The egla arufa rite prompts us to think about the tragedy of loss of even one single life and provides an opportunity for introspection.
• Rav Aaron Lichtenstein observes that the topic of egla arufa appears in the middle of the laws of war (between the laws of siege and the laws of the captive woman) as a reminder of the exceptional value and preciousness of each and every human life because during a war, it is possible for the individual soldier to lose his sense of identity, personal worth and contribution. The individual becomes subsumed to the collective, loses his significance, and is in danger of developing a militant and aggressive character.
We all share in the responsibility
Because it is unimaginable that these respected leaders actually committed the murder, the Talmud interprets the elders’ requirement to speak up and declare “our hands have not spilled this blood and our eyes have not witnessed it” in a broader sense to mean that they were not even indirectly responsible for the death: “no one came within our jurisdiction whom we discharged without food and whom we did not see and whom we left without providing him an escort”. Malbim adds that lack of food may have driven the commission of the murder and the lack of an escort would have placed the victim in danger.
We no longer have the ceremony-- “When the number of murderers increased the egla arufa rite was abolished”-- but we do have the broader takeaway message. Every human life is unique and important. A violent death should shatter our complacency. A society is responsible for assuring a safe environment for its citizens. Laws must be enforced. There must be adequate lighting and police presence on our roads. We must encourage efforts to provide food, shelter and safety for the needy. We are obligated to identify and remove evil, violence and oppression in all forms.
“You shall thus rid yourself of [the guilt of] innocent blood in your midst, since you have done that which is morally right [h’ayashar] in God’s eyes.”
How are we to interpret this concluding verse of the egla arufa topic (and of the Parsha)?
It may be simply a summary of this ritual that achieves atonement for the spilt blood of the innocent corpse.
But the phrase “doing that which is morally right [h’ayashar] in God’s eyes” more typically has to do with moral behavior, not with ritual. Rashi’s comment is that we are being told to continue to seek out the murderer even after the ceremony is complete because the pursuit of justice is the behavior that is correct in God’s eyes.
Because the phrase “doing that which is morally right [h’ayashar] in God’s eyes” usually connotes a more general, broad set of behavior rather than a specific act, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, building on the idea of Ibn Ezra, concludes that the Torah is providing us with advice on leading our lives in such a way that will prevent recurrence of a tragedy like this: Always do what is right in God’s eyes by adhering toTorah laws and ethics.
The prefix “b” in the phrase “Beynai Hashem” generally is translated to mean in or within. An alternate definition is using or utilizing. Translated this way, the commandment is for us to behave using “eynai Hashem”, the eyes of God, a term that means insight and deeper understanding of behavior to which God alone is privy. When we are dealing with our fellow Man, we are urged to try to use or utilize the same understanding and forgiveness that we would like God to use in judging us.