This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H & my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H & in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmother Channah Freidel Bas Sarah
-My great aunt Rivkah Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aviva Malka Bas Leah
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
שֹׁפְטִים ~ Shoftim
“Making Casual of Casualties”
|[20:1, 21:1-10] “When you go out to war against your enemy…
When you find a corpse on the ground that Hashem is giving to you to inherit, fallen in the field, [and] it is not known who hit him; Then the elders and the judges should measure towards the cities that are around the corpse. And it shall be, the city that is closest to the corpse, then the elders of that city should take a calf of a bull which work had not been done that has not pulled with a yoke; and the elders of that city shall bring down the calf to Nachal Eisan [a harsh valley] that cannot [shall not] be worked and cannot [shall not] be sown, and they shall decapitate the calf at the valley… And they shall respond [announce] and say: ‘Our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes have not seen [it happen]. Atone for Your people Yisrael whom You have redeemed, Hashem, and do not place innocent blood in the midst of Your people Yisrael,” and the blood shall be atoned for them. And you shall eradicate [spillage of] innocent blood from your midst, for you shall do what is straight in the eyes of Hashem.
When you go out to battle against your enemy…”
|…כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֨א לַמִּלְחָמָ֜ה עַל־אֹיְבֶ֗יךָ
כִּי־יִמָּצֵ֣א חָלָ֗ל בָּאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁר֩ ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ נֹתֵ֤ן לְךָ֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ נֹפֵ֖ל בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖ע מִ֥י הִכָּֽהוּ
Towards the end of Parshas Shoftim, Moshe Rabbeinu discusses the unique ceremony of Eglah Arufah, literally, the decapitated calf, which takes place in response to the tragic circumstance in which a man is found, apparently murdered, in a field, and his assassin is unknown and out of sight [Devarim 21:1-9].
The Torah commands that the Zikeinim (elders) and Shoftim (judges) of the nearest city to take a young heifer which has performed no work to a Nachal Eisan, literally, a harsh valley, that cannot be worked or sown, and they are to axe the back of the head of this heifer. At the end of this ritual, they recite this proclamation that they “have not spilled this blood” and that their “eyes did not see” what had happened, after which, they ask for atonement for the innocent blood that is spilled. The passage concludes that after this ritual, they will have been atoned.
Now, the question is as what the simple meaning of the ceremony of Eglah Arufah is? What is the purpose for the decapitation of this non-worked calf? Why does it have to take place in a rough valley which cannot be sown? Additionally, what exactly is the role of the elders and judges in this whole situation? Because, that too really doesn’t seem clear; on the one hand, they’re claiming oddly that “it’s not their fault,” meanwhile, they’re charged with this ceremony in which they’re evidently seeking atonement for what has happened. From the very fact that they would even need to specify that “we have not spilled this blood” is suspicious, because we would not have likely accused them as being the culprits here. If we weren’t suspecting them before, why are they bringing a lot of attention to themselves now? The elders and judges’ apparent “denial” of blame, albeit a part of their “script,” combined with their pursuit of atonement, makes it seem all the more as if the elders and judges are somehow culpable for this tragedy. So, are the Zikeinim and Shoftim to blame or aren’t they?
On the topic of Eglah Arufah, the Ba’al HaTurim points out, in the very next Sidrah [Devarim 21:10], that our passage of Eglah Arufah is oddly sandwiched in between two larger passages pertaining to war, both beginning with the phrase, “Ki Seitzei LaMilchamah Al Oyivecha…”-“When you go to battle against your enemy…” [Devarim 20:1, 21:10]. Now, Eglah Arufah doesn’t seem to have much to do with battling against the enemy nations directly, so it’s strange that the Torah would interrupt its war-related discussion for this mystery murder case and the ritual of the decapitated calf.
Accordingly, the Ba’al HaTurim suggests a few connections, the first of which being, that as the Eglah Arufah deals one who murders his fellowman without being caught, a similar scenario, likely to occur, might feature an individual who goes after his fellowman in a time of war and blames the unseen murder on the enemies, thereby allowing himself to get away with it.
The problem with this suggestion is that in such scenario, where there is, in fact, a war going on, indeed, one would not suspect the particular assassin, and we would likely assume that the fallen individual was merely a casualty of war, and we would seemingly not perform the ceremony of Eglah Arufah in such a case, as Eglah Arufah is only performed for a murder that is presumably unaccounted for.
The third of the Ba’al HaTurim’s explanations is similarly problematic as the Ba’al HaTurim suggests that the Torah is trying to teach that when the B’nei Yisrael go out to war, they should not place two men who hate each other together, lest they proceed to strike each other. Again, the same issue would apply, for if either of these individuals is killed by one by the other at this time, it won’t make much a difference for our purposes either way, because we’ll naturally assume that the killed man was a casualty of war, and the ritual of Eglah Arufah would seemingly still not be relevant.
So, if these scenarios will unlikely result in the situation of Eglah Arufah, what exactly is the Ba’al HaTurim trying to convey? What does he mean to say, is the basis for the relationship between Eglah Arufah and warring against the enemies?
Coming back to our general difficulty with Eglah Arufah, we’re trying to understand the meaning of the ritual and its details. Why do we axe the head of the calf? Why do we care how young and inexperienced at work this calf is? Who cares about the location of the ritual?
All of these components are meant to help everyone relate to the nature of this tragedy. As if a Korban (animal offering), we take this calf, which stands in place of the given individual, here the murdered man, and perhaps his murderer too. And like the murdered individual, and like what should’ve happened to his assassin, the calf’s life is taken prematurely, before it can work, or before it can “serve its purpose” and complete its “life mission.” The ritual takes place on rough land that will have no work done on it, as it too represents the sad situation of the life not completely cultivated, the shame of a mission cut short, unable to be completed. Indeed, the whole idea of Eglah Arufah is that the sudden death, the murder, of this individual be noticed, acknowledged, and felt.
Now, what is the nature of the role of the Zikeinim and Shoftim in this ritual? What is the meaning of their proclamation? Why are they so defensive, that they’re claiming that the death was not their fault, while in the same breath, they’re also attempting to get atonement for the death? Is it their fault or not?
So, whether or not it’s their fault directly and whether or not they’re literal suspects of the murder is clearly not a question. Assuming they didn’t kill the man—that is our assumption; we don’t know who the murderer is—then, of course, they’re not directly at fault. So, what are they saying?
Chazzal, as quoted by Rashi in our passage, suggest that the Zikeinim and the Shoftim mean to intimate here that the fallen individual did not specifically leave their care without food or an escort [Sotah 45B], that had he been in their care, they would’ve sent him off under positive circumstances. Their point is that they had nothing to do with the death, and as such, the death is not their fault. Alternatively, the Talmud Yerushalmi suggests that they mean to intimate that they did not let any convicted murderer loose who might’ve killed the individual. Either way, the death was not remotely their fault.
But, if it’s not remotely their fault, why are they presenting such a suspicious sounding proclamation? Why do they seemingly need to achieve some kind of atonement?
Perhaps the idea of Eglah Arufah, based on what we’ve been explaining, has nothing to do with whose fault it was, but more to do with a more sophisticated and subtle connection that these elders and judges share with the tragedy at large.
Parshas Shoftim, globally speaking, features many laws pertaining to various forms of leadership, discussing the roles of the Shoftim and Shotrim (judges and officers), the Melech (king), the Kohanim and Levi’im, the Navi (prophet), and the Kohein Mashuach Milchamah (the Priest anointed for battle). In this global discussion, the Torah also includes the anti-leaders; judges who accept bribes, the Zakein Mamrei (rebellious elder) who deliberately challenges the majority rule, the idolater, the haughty and indulgent king, different types of murderers, the Eideim Zomemin (conspiring witnesses) who falsely frame another in court, and the individual who feigns prophetic experience in the name of idols. We hear about people who act justly and with precision, and on the other hand, people who either act maliciously or with gross negligence. We hear about the leadership figures, and the potential faults in the leadership figures.
But, at the end of this larger discussion about leadership and its foils, the Torah reaches the gray passage of Eglah Arufah, where the weight of this tragic, mystery murder is placed on the shoulders of the Zikeinim and Shoftim. It’s certainly not directly their fault. This much, we know already; their proclamation defends them this much. They’re not “guilty” individuals. It’s not a matter of whose direct fault it is—it’s the murderer’s fault, and he is unknown and he’s gone. However, for everyone else, on some level, there is a matter of responsibility, literally speaking, a calling for some kind of response. The presence of the elders and judges in this ceremony reflects this intrinsic relevance and responsibility that they have here, their need to tend to this tragedy as the leaders of the city. It reflects their call to action on behalf of the townspeople. They’re supposed to feel the weight of the life that has been prematurely taken—that this man was killed out in the open, and there was no one around to right the wrong, to stop the murder or even avenge his death. They’re supposed to feel the weight of his lifeless body which was left lying disgracefully in the middle of the field while his assassin plainly walked off. And that feeling is supposed to influence their care in their leadership services and the way set the tone for the larger community. The point is that they have to genuinely care, as it’s supposed to matter to them that a life was casually taken that way.
Returning to the issue raised by the Ba’al HaTurim, the apparent connection between war and Eglah Arufah, it could be that even the Ba’al HaTurim would concede that practically speaking, the scenario of an individual who murders his fellowman of his brethren during wartime will not necessarily result in a case of Eglah Arufah. However, the idea of someone smiting his fellowman and that man being viewed as “another casualty” of the situation, an unfortunate, but situational occurrence, is intimately relevant to the message of Eglah Arufah, namely, that one should not make casual of a casualty! It’s not just “another casualty.” It’s a brother’s life.
The unsolved murder case of a brother, accordingly, is one which the family is supposed to take to heart, so much so, that without understanding the gravity of this shortened life, perhaps the team is not prepared to head out to battle. If people do not care enough or appreciate the value of the life of their brother, how could they even think of going to war against the true enemy? If our brothers’ lives are potentially being taken by other brethren, and the remains of those lives are left on the sidewalk unattended, how could we go out to battle? If we have to worry about brothers on the same team fighting each other as the enemy approaches, how could we stand a chance?
It is perhaps with these ideas in mind, that the Ba’al HaTurim offers his second suggestion, that the connection between Eglah Arufah and battle scene is that although one might think to engage in battle first and save the Eglah Arufah ceremony for afterwards, one should actually attend the dead with the Eglah Arufah ritual first and, in that merit, triumph in the war. Based on what we’ve suggested, that point should be obvious, for a prerequisite for bringing one’s team into war—where we know there may be casualties—is realizing that every life matters, has meaning, and therefore has to mean something to us. We can’t become jaded by the reality of war against the enemy and lose focus of the lives that end in the process. How can we go out to war “Al Oyivecha,” against the enemy, before we’re moved by the reality that our brother is still laying before us?
In our lives, the ideals behind these lessons apply even in circumstances less extreme than that of murder between members of the B’nei Yisrael. The idea that we’re unable to complete our national missions because of animosity within our family is certainly true in all circumstances, let alone, when we’re being attacked by our enemies. And even the mistake of making casual of casualties should hit home as it is rooted in a general lack of sensitivity that all of us have for others people, their lives, families, personal situations and even their individual their feelings. Even if we have no animosity towards them, are we bothered when the lives are taken? Do we stand idly by if our brethren are harming, slandering or shaming each other? Does any of that matter to us? Eglah Arufah reminds us that all of these things should matter. Before we go out to these wars, we have to realize what it means to truly feel for each other so that we do not make casual of a casualty.
May we all be Zocheh to appreciate and care about the lives and feelings of our brothers and sisters, have our thoughts and hearts with them always, stand up for them when we’re called to, and Hashem should, in turn, respond to our genuine care for one another with His care for us and carry us into the days of the Geulah and the coming of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂