Justice, Parshat HaShavua

Anonymous Murder (D’var Torah Shoftim #1)

In 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was invited to address those gathered at the Race and Religion Conference, organized by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. It was at this conference that Heschel met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., launching a remarkable and powerful friendship.

In Heschel’s address, he uttered one of the lines that continues to haunt us to this day. He says: “[A]n honest estimation of the moral state of our society will disclose: Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Some are guilty, but all are responsible.

This week in Deuteronomy we come to a portion called, Shoftim, Judges, and it lays out laws for judges, kings, priests, and prophets, in short much of the biblical justice system. It contains another famous statement, Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice you shall pursue. Later it continues with regulations for war demonstrating the need for effective violence and limitations designed to prevent violence from getting out of hand. Finally, the last piece of the parashah details an unusual situation. What happens when a dead body is found in the middle of nowhere, but within Israelite territory? Specifically, what happens in the case of a murder outside the jurisdiction of a town, when the killer’s identity cannot be discovered?

Here’s what the Torah describes:

  1. Somebody discovers the murder victim.
  2. The elders and judges go out, and measure the distance from the body to the various cities nearby.
  3. Whichever city is closest, the elders take a calf which has never done work, bring it to a valley where no agricultural work has been done, and break the calf’s neck.
  4. The elders then wash their hands over the calf, and say, “Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes did not see.”
  5. Then the priests approach, and they say, “Atone for Your people Israel who You have redeemed, O God! Do not place innocent blood in the midst of Your people Israel.”
  6. Finally, the Torah tells us that this will remove the innocent blood from the midst of the people.

That’s it! So what we have here is a question of responsibility when no one person can be identified as guilty. The easiest way to respond to a problem outside of your city, is to think it’s not your problem at all. It’s sad, of course, but as long as it’s not in my backyard, my hands are clean. End of story. But the Torah has other news for us. Way back at the beginning, the blood of the very first murder victim, Abel, cries out from the ground. Cain utters those infamous words, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In some ways, the entire Torah is an elaboration of an emphatic affirmative, yes you are. That is why to know God means to pursue justice, and to promote injustice, or to simply stand back and allow it to happen, is idolatry.

The Torah tells us here that even when we are not guilty, we live proximate to responsibility. Granted, the Torah’s way of trying to address this responsibility involves a bizarre ritual that may not resonate today. It seems as though the sacrifice of a calf that has never done work in a place that has never been worked signified the loss of potential wrought by murder. The point is, we are never as far away from pain, loss, violence, corruption, and injustice as we might sometimes imagine. Rashi imagines the elders and judges lamenting that the murder victim had been visiting their city, and they did not see him leave, and they did not send him off with food and with a safe escort. In other words, while they did not commit the crime, they were part of a system that left someone vulnerable. The bonds of community were not quite as strong as they could have been. Later in his 1963 speech, Heschel says: “History has made us all neighbors.” We are in this together, community by community, tribe by tribe. Just as the Torah tries to creatively address how to practice our responsibility even when we personally are not at fault, so too may we understand how to practice responsibility for reducing or even preventing the pain in our lives and in the lives of our neighbors.