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 Mitzvahs…establishment of comprehensive leadership, judicial and religious system to facilitate formation of God’s model nation: establishing a court system; appointing judges and police; establishing supreme court and its authority; role of priests and Levites; appointing a King…idolatrous trees prohibited…punishment for idol worship… rights of priests and Levites… prohibited practices: child sacrifice; divination; sorcery; fortune telling…true and false prophecy…cities of refuge…laws relating to witnesses… who is exempt from going to war …giving peace a chance… destruction of fruit- bearing trees is prohibited during war…Egla Arufa ceremony for the unsolved murder
The case of the unsolved murder—Egla Arufa
Following is the procedure for a Chalal (corpse) found in an open field and the murderer is unknown: elders and judges (including members of the High Court in Jerusalem) measure the 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 Arfu the calf (decapitate by striking the back of the neck).
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.”
Clearly, the egla arufa calf is not a sacrifice, but a form of atonement. The area surrounding the Nachal Aysan may never be worked or sown.
How are we to understand this ceremony?
• Rambam, ever the rationalist, reasons that the purpose is to find the murderer. In most cases the murderer came from that area 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 egla arufa as a chok, a law seemingly without rational explanation, apparently designed to attain atonement on some level.
• Abravanel 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 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 experience the horror of a murder committed in its midst. The egla arufa rite prompts us to realize the tragedy of loss of even one single life and provides the opportunity for us to engage in self-scrutiny.
• Rav Aaron Lichtenstein observes that in 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. 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.
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 need to identify and protest evil, violence and oppression in all forms.