Parshat Shoftim: Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9; Isaiah 51:12-52:12.
By Rabbi Schneor Greenberg
Have you ever heard the expression, “I wash my hands of this matter?” Where did this expression originate?
This week we read about a seemingly strange commandment called Eglah Arufah. (Deuteronomy 21.1-8). If someone is found slain in an open field near a city, then the elders and officials of the city need to go out to the field where the corpse had been found. There they bury the corpse and measure the distance between it and the two nearest cities, identifying the one that is closer. The elders of the city closer to the corpse offer a calf as an atonement for the spilled blood.
The Torah insists that “all the elders of the city” attend this ceremony, where they all wash their hands while reciting, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done,” inferring, as Maimonides puts it, that “just as our hands have been made clean by this water, so our hands are clean from the murder of this corpse.”
The Talmud raises the perceptive question, “Why would we in any way assume that the elders would spill blood?” The implication was not that they literally committed the murder; but as the Talmud says, “It’s not that he came to us for help and we let him depart the city without provisions for the road, nor did we see him and let him leave without a proper escort.”
Responsibility for murder does not fall merely upon the one who literally spills the blood. Should the deed occur in the open field, the entire community, and particularly its elders, judges and leaders, bear the responsibility for the murder.
The Torah teaches us the level of responsibility that leadership in each community should take, making sure to care for the well-being of the public so that they too could, in clear conscience, say “our hands are clean.”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, said that the rule of the Eglah Arufah teaches us that we need to take responsibility for every Jew. When we see Jewish children who are not receiving any Jewish education, we can’t just wash our hands and say, “That’s not our problem.” Rather, it is the responsibility of each of us.
As we are at the beginning of a new school year, let us find a Jewish child who is not yet receiving a Jewish education and help him connect to our special heritage.
Rabbi Schneor Greenberg is rabbi of the Chabad Jewish Center of Commerce,