O holy Shabbes Shoftim
Someone found slain
no one known responsible
a body found in the woods
at the bottom of a well
the remains of a person unearthed
under a construction site —
a person killed.
Who is responsible for life taken
in ways unknown.
This mysterious mitzvah of Torah
eglah arufah – the broken-necked calf
some connection to cleansing the community
from unspecified sin [Lev. 4:13-15]
and the other great mystery mitzvah
the red heifer. [Num. 19:2 ff.]
Eglah arufah the mystery
of the broken-necked calf.
If, in the land
someone slain is found lying in the open
the identity of the slayer not being known
your elders and judges shall go out and measure the distances
from the corpse to the nearby towns.
The elders of the nearest town shall take a calf
which has never been worked, bring it down to a rugged wadi
which is neither plowed nor sown.
There, in the wadi, they shall break the calf’s neck.
The priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward
then all the elders of the town nearest the corpse
shall wash their hands over the calf
whose neck has been broken
and say “our hands did not shed this blood,
neither have our eyes seen it.
Forgive, O God, your people Israel
whom you have redeemed
and do not let guilt for the blood
of the innocent remain
among your people Israel.” [Deut. 21:2-8]
Rashi quoting the Talmud:
what kind of confession is this?
Who would imagine the elders had anything
to do with it?
The point: everyone is responsible
a life has been taken
the whole community is somehow
who was not involved?
A closer look at the culture
it’s the culture it’s the culture.
Three sets of elders are part
of the ritual.
First group of elders measures the distance
from where the body is found to the nearest town
3 to 5 elders who came from the High Court in Jerusalem
to make the measurement. [BT Sota 45a]
We have come to make the measurement
the closest settlement –
Silver City —
We will focus our inquiries there
or we will place responsibilities when
the detectives arrive.
Another team comes then from town
and their task is to take the calf down to a wadi
a wild place neither plowed nor sown.
Finally the elders of the closest town
the third group of elders
shall wash their hands and say this:
our hands did not shed this blood
neither have our eyes seen it.
Magical the myth of it
absolvement through mystery ritual
this from Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra.
From Maimonides —
a mystery story
a strategy to solve a murder [Guide 3:40]
the murderer probably lives nearby
stir it up –
the more likely someone will be found responsible
[I’ve seen Ice T. do this on television].
You shall act in accordance with the instructions
given you and the ruling handed down to you
you must not deviate from the verdict
they announce to you
— either to the right or to the left. [Deut. 17:11]
Rashi: you bowed to the court
even when you thought it was wrong. [Rashi on 17:11]
Not the Rabbis
you might think you are to follow
if the Sages tell you that the left is right
and the right is left
not so – [JT]
only when they tell you that the right is right
and the left is left –
When the professionals conspire to alter truth
you follow what’s right
not who’s in authority
the truth is stronger than authority
truth stronger than bureaucracy
there is only one true power
and it speaks to the individual –
you can trust it.
James Stone Goodman