We Are All Guilty
Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Translated and adapted by Rafaella Levine
Soft footsteps sound rhythmically along the soft brush on the gently sloping mountainside. A twig breaks as the rhythm ends abruptly and the man sucks his breath in rapidly.
A body thrown beside the road. No clues, other than a ruthless bruise on the side of his head. A walking stick and burlap sac are strewn near his feet.
Who is he?
And who was the perpetrator?
The traveler approaches and reaches out a hand to the fallen Jew. Cold. He’s been lying here for hours at least. He unrolls his blanket from the makeshift pack on his back and gently laid it over the body, wondering again, who is he, and what happened?
He pauses, loath to leave the body unprotected. But it has to be reported. The burial can not be immediate, he knew. First, responsibility would have to be determined.
A few kilometers north is the village S. Southwest is the town of M. He looks up slowly, gauging the distance to both. S was probably the closer and it was to there he turned.
“If a corpse will be found … fallen in the field, it was not known who smote him, your elders and judges shall go out and measure toward the cities that are around the corpse. It shall be that the city nearest the corpse, the elders of that city shall take a heifer… and bring the heifer down to a harsh valley which cannot be worked and cannot be sown, and they shall axe the back of its neck in the valley… All the elders of that city, who are closest to the corpse, shall wash their hands over the heifer that was axed in the valley. They shall speak up and say, “‘Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes did not see’” (Deuteronomy 21:1-7).
The slain man was nameless. The murderer disappeared without a trace. Before setting up a police investigation, before calling the burial society, everyone awaited the arrival of a delegation of five members of the Great Sanhedrin, the high court in Jerusalem. The delegation must be sent to the furthest stretches of the land, to the outskirts of, in all likelihood, a remote town. They waited with his burial for the days it would take the honorary delegation to arrive. Their job was to measure the distance between the spot where the corpse was found and the nearby towns, determining which city or town was nearest.
Assumably, the days allotted to waiting and measuring were characterized by rising affectivity in the hearts of the region’s residents. Everyone waited to see how it would fall. The procedure of measuring, performed by the nation’s elite, created an educational effect which echoed with silent force: the death of any one person is not an insignificant matter. Routine must be interrupted until things are clarified. This idea, if it penetrated their hearts, would act as an effective obstruent against the build up of apathy and indifference which clog society’s humanitarian arteries.
The nearest city was determined. Its elders and honoraries, as the population’s natural representatives, bring a young calf down to an uncultivated valley, and slaughter it there.
Why a heifer? And why the harsh valley?
“Said the Holy One Blessed be He: let come a heifer of one year, who has not yet been productive, and it shall be slaughtered in a place that is not fruitful, to atone for the murder of him who was not enabled to continue to be productive” (Rashi, based on the Talmud).
The slain man died before his time, his activity on this earth felled prematurely. All possibility for his productivity, as part of humane society, is lost eternally. The calf’s decapitation emphasizes this feeling of loss, of prematurity. All those witnessing it, and all the residents of the town would feel the severity of a life lost.
At the end of the ceremony, the city’s leaders “shall wash their hands over the heifer that was axed in the valley. They shall speak up and say, ‘Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes did not see’” (ibid 6-7).
Are the city’s prestigious leaders really suspect in this crime? Why do they declare their innocence before their city?
“That he did not come to us and leave without food or escort” (Rashi, ibid).
If we let him leave the city without providing him with some amount of security, if we did not feed him properly, if we did not care for his needs, we share responsibility for the tragedy.
The concept of murder expanded at those moments to frightening dimensions. The people learned the meaning of the word responsibility.