by Rabbi David Fried
The end of Parshat Shoftim details the procedure of the eglah arufah, the ritual that must be performed when a person is found murdered and the identity of the murderer is not known. First they measure which city is closest to the scene of the crime. The elders of that city then slaughter a calf and wash their hands, and proclaim, “Our hands did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes see.” Rashi (Deut. 21:7) quotes the Mishnah (Sota 45b), which states, “Would anyone suspect that the elders of the court are murders? Rather, what they mean is, “We did not see him and send him off without food and escort.” The implication is that had they not taken care of him properly, and he thereby came to be endangered, they would bear some culpability for the murder, even though they did not commit it. When tragedies have befallen us, this Mishnah has often been used (properly) to demand introspection of ourselves and our communities to see if we really did everything we could to prevent it, as Chazal say (Brachot 5a), “One who experiences suffering should examine his deeds.” Did we spend enough time teaching our children the Torah values of loving our fellow Jew and seeing all of humanity as created in the image of God? Did we provide enough love and support to our loved ones as they were going through physical or mental illnesses? These are legitimate questions for communities to ask themselves following a tragedy. This Mishnah has also often been used (improperly) to point fingers at other communities and assign them collective guilt for their tragedies.
While the Mishnah’s point demanding personal and communal introspection in the face of tragedy is certainly true and worthwhile, I would like to suggest a different peshat. To answer the Mishnah’s question of who would suspect that the elders of the court are murderers, I would suggest the answer is that they themselves would. It is a natural response of good people who experience tragedy to feel responsible for it. While a certain amount of introspection is healthy, becoming consumed by guilt is not. It is not healthy for a child whose parents are divorcing to think, “If only I had acted better, my parents would still love each other.” Likewise, it is not healthy for a parent whose child has been arrested to think, “If only I had been a better parent, my child would not have turned out this way,” or a husband or wife whose spouse has died young of a severe illness to think, “If only I had spent more time caring for them, they would have lived longer.” We need to be able to accept that tragedy happens in the world, people are responsible for their own actions, and we cannot control it. Accepting this is not easy, and many who go through such tragedies may need therapy to help them reach that point. It is for this reason, I would like to suggest, that the Torah ritualizes a way for the elders of the city to be able to symbolically wash their hands of the matter, and proclaim to themselves, “Our hands did not spill this blood.”