A Tale of Two Cities – Rav Yonatan Horovitz
At the end of this week’s parsha we are told of a ceremony to be performed if a person is found dead in a public area, with no clear explanation as to the reason for their demise. The Torah describes how in such a case, the distance to the nearby cities is measured after which the elders of the closest city perform the mitzvah of “egla arufah”. They take a calf which has never been used for work to a field which has never been tilled or sown and there they break the calf’s neck. The ceremony continues in the presence of the kohanim with a declaration by the city elders whereby they state that they were in no way involved in the death of this person. They then ask from Hashem not to find Am Yisrael guilty of spilling innocent blood but rather to absolve them of any wrongdoing in this matter. (It is worth reading the exact wording of the Torah – Devarim 11:1-9)
At first glance, this entire ceremony seems to be very strange if not pagan. What are we trying to achieve by this event? Rav Ibn Ezra points out that God commanded the elders of the nearby city to perform the ceremony “because if not for the fact that they or the inhabitants of the city had committed a sin, the slain person would not have been found in their vicinity and the ways of God are infinitely deep.” This implies that the breaking of the calf’s neck is to atone for a sin which was obviously committed in this city. Hashem “arranged” that this unfortunate event would occur specifically there, so that the elders would then be forced to ask for atonement on their behalf and on behalf of all the city. It would seem that the “egla arufah” is thus perceived as some form of sacrifice, used to achieve forgiveness albeit for a sin which is unknown. Ramban also suggests that this is a type of sacrifice and lists it with other korbanot preformed outsides the confines of the Mikdash such as the para aduma and the sa”ir hamishtaleach (the goat sent away to be killed in the wilderness on Yom Kippur). Ramban continues to state that for this reason the sages list the “egla arufah” as one of the statutes, a commandment, the rationale for which, we do not understand.
Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim, maintains that the entire ceremony is performed in order to arouse public interest in the murder inquiry. This was such a rare occurrence that once the elders began the process of measuring to the closest city followed by all the preparations for the neck breaking, people will start talking. The public will begin to discuss amongst themselves the background for the murder and it is possible that as a result of this the murderer will be found. According to Rambam, this entire process was used to shock the local population and hopefully lead to a solution to this murder mystery. This is an intriguing suggestion and not in line with the methods promoted in detective series or novels. As strange as the Rambam’s suggestion may be, it is adopted by other mefarshim too, including the Chinuch and Abarbanel. What is clear from both the comments of Rambam and Ibn Ezra is that the person is assumed to have been murdered and not to have died a natural death.
It is possible however that there exists a third option, somewhere between cold blooded murder and natural death. In the legal world this would be manslaughter; in the halachic system the person who committed such a crime is considered a “rotzeach bishgaga” and is sentenced to remain in an “ir miklat”. But we are talking here of a different level of responsibility. The Gemara in Massechet Sotah (46a) asks why is it that the elders of the city have to state “our hands did not spill this blood”. Surely we do not suspect these upstanding members of society to have committed murder? The Gemara explains that their statement is to atone for the possibility that the slain person was sent from the town without food or allowed to set out on his journey without an escort. Why would these two things cause the visitor to the town to find his death? If he was sent away without food, he may have had to steal and as a result could have got into a fight which resulted in his death. The same could apply to his wandering in areas unfamiliar to him with no local escort. He could have been attacked by local bandits or other evildoers along the way.
This Gemara suggests that although the members of the city, and the elders at their head, played no active role in the stranger’s death, they nevertheless are held responsible. The lack of concern for this person’s welfare both whilst he was in their town and more importantly, on his departure is something which the Torah takes very seriously. This is not about murder; this is not about manslaughter; this is about social responsibility. This is about concern for our fellow man. If we return to the words of the Ibn Ezra, he sees the fact that a body is found so close to this city as a statement of the righteousness or lack thereof of its’ population. The Gemara takes this idea one stage further and tells us where lies the problem. We have to look after all the needs of our guests and those who pass through our city.
The Gemara continues to discuss why the heifer used for this ceremony is specifically one which has never before worked and why its neck is broken in a desolate field. The answer given is that “Hashem said that a heifer which did not bear fruit should be killed in a place which has not born fruit and atone for he who was not left to bear fruit.” The Gemara discusses the various meanings of this statement. The basic idea is that the unused heifer and field represent unfulfilled potential. They stand for something which could have provided for society but is not given the chance. The same applies to this unfortunate person whose life was ended in an untimely fashion. He was unable to fulfill his potential; his life was cut short and for all that he did not have the opportunity to achieve, we need to ask for forgiveness.
We have not resolved all the difficulties found in the mitzvah of “egla arufah”. But we have learned two important lessons. Our responsibility to those around us is greater than we might expect. We should show concern for the simple needs of our friends, neighbors and of course those who are visitors to our town. In addition, we must remember that the greatest gift of all, the gift of life is not just about what one has achieved but about what one still has the potential to achieve. This should affect not only how we view the sanctity of human life but also how we look at our own contributions to the world in which we live.