Ask Not For Whom the Cowbell Tolls – Rav Jonathan Bailey
The injunction concerning the decapitating of a calf to atone for the murder of a mystery victim – the ceremony of the eglah arufa – certainly comes across as enigmatic, puzzling and maybe even just a little…strange.
To review: the Torah states that if a corpse is found ‘in the Land that God has given you to inherit’, the ‘elders and judges’ must measure to ascertain which city is closest to the unclaimed body; the citizens of the city in closer proximity to the murder victim then take responsibility for the crime. That city’s elders then take a calf, one that ‘hasn’t been worked and has not worn a yoke’, and bring it to a ‘desolate river, which can not be worked or planted [after this event]’ and ‘decapitate’ it there. Then, the kohanim approach, ‘who have been specially chosen to serve and bless God, deciding between fights and [addressing] negah (Tzarat) issues’. The elders then proclaim that ‘our hands did not spill this blood and we saw nothing [of the incident]’ and the Kohanim respond that ‘[the elders] have atoned for their nation that God redeemed and they should not [cause] innocent blood to be spilled in the midst of their nation,Yisrael.’
Questions to be asked: Why are these elders, who were ‘accused’ of the crime to begin with, trusted to state that they didn’t commit the murder and then receive complete atonement for it? And what are they atoning for?! And, added to this, Rashi’s question, in the same vein: ‘do we really think that these elders and judges of this town would have committed this murder?!’ Rashi also gives the answer to his ‘rhetorical’ question, ‘rather, they are really saying that we did not allow this stranger to pass through our city without escort and provisions’. So, even if we assume that it’s more probable to see these venerable statesmen faltering in their ‘host’ role than as outright murderers, how do all the specific details of this atoning process address and absolve this particular crime? They bring this untouched cow to this untouched land, chop off its head and all is acceptable and forgiven?!
Once again, the specific language used in the Torah is the key to answer all these questions:
1) The location: ‘in the Land that God has given you to inherit’;
2) The people:
- ‘elders and judges’ of the closest city;
- ‘kohanim’ labeled as the ‘deciders of judgments’;
3) The ceremony:
- calf: ‘hasn’t been worked and has not worn a yoke’;
- river: ‘desolate river, which can not be worked or planted [after this event]’;
- action: ‘decapitated’;
4) The statement: ‘our hands did not spill this blood and we saw nothing [of the incident]’
5) The atonement: ‘they have atoned for their nation that God redeemed and they should not [cause] innocent blood to be spilled in the midst of their nation, Yisrael.’
The location in which this body is found is specifically the Land that God gave ‘you’, the nation, to inherit. So immediately we are told through this tone-setting first verse that this episode is to be understood within the context of a nationally defined event, an incident that specifically occurs within the nation’s environs and will therefore address aspects of a national character, represented in this event by the individuals obligated to perform the ceremony. The people of this scene, the elders and judges and the kohanim, tell us that this event is judiciary/governmental in nature; the elders and judges of the city representing its authority, and the kohanim specifically labeled in this section as ‘deciders of judgments’. So, we can assume that there is something judicial, legal and official that is ensuing in this situation. The ceremony’s rites convey a deep sense of ‘wasted opportunity’: a totally unused calf, a fertile river that from this moment on must be left fallow forever and the type of killing is decapitation, prohibiting any subsequent eating of its meat. Thestatement, if we use Rashi’s explanation as the implied message of the actual declaration, is that the city’s leaders are stating that they did not ignore anyone that may have passed through their jurisdiction. They emphatically proclaim that no one was left alone, all passers-by were fed and escorted on their journey, (services, when neglected, may have led to the visitor’s demise, indirectly ‘spilling blood’). These words reflect the issue of ignoring someone in need, neglecting to perform a required service for a fellow man. And finally, the atonement, which encompasses the entire Jewish people; the actions and words of these representatives absolve the entire nation for the spilling of innocent blood, thus bringing the ‘national character’ angle, used in the introduction of this entire episode, full circle.
How does it all come together and how does this answer our original questions? The first verse states that ‘when a body is found…and it is not known who killed him’. The only description of this dead body is that no one knows who did it! In other words, the aspect of this murder the Torah wants us to focus on is that this is an unclaimed dead body, no responsibility has been taken. But in the very same verse, it states that this happens in ‘your Land that God gave you [the nation] to inherit’. A wonderful contrast is immediately set up: on the one hand this is the national Land, belonging to everyone; on the other hand, there is a dead body within it belonging to no one. And on the one hand, atonementmust be made for the killing of a citizen of this national entity (the Land); on the other hand, if it’s an unclaimed murder, how can atonement be attained and absolution truly granted for something in which people were personally uninvolved? And this is exactly what the upcoming ‘eglaharufa process’ facilitates: a genuine confession and absolution for the entire people, even for a murder for which they were not personally responsible.
How is this forgiveness received? The first step is to establish this event as an official ceremony with an official acceptance of responsibility; this is achieved by sending out the highest officers of the city to measure who will officially accept blame for the murder. Then, these very same officers perform an action of total wasted opportunity: a young, fresh, unused calf, decapitated upon a river, rendering the fertile site unusable. How do these national representatives sincerely take responsibility for a murder they did not commit? The elders of the city are commanded to actively create a situation for themselves that expresses an exaggerated failure of opportunity, to produce the bitter feeling of unnecessary loss. Through this action, they can draw themselves into the loss felt by the death of one of the members of their nation, even when they haven’t personally performed the actual killing.
Having illustrated the personal comprehension of this murder’s results through physical action, they are then commanded to verbalize the confession that they can now express sincerely. They say that ‘we had nothing to do with the murder,’ which is the necessary confession, the required wording, but, with the help of Rashi, we can understand what they are truly supposed to appreciate through this statement: ‘we did not neglect this individual in any way as required from us as leaders of his nation’. And it is with these physical and verbal declarations with which they sincerely accepted responsibility, that the kohanim, ‘the ones chosen to decide judgments’ (once again: officially stated, and now similarly witnessed and decided) can declare them absolved for the entire nation! They, as individuals, may have been called upon to actualize the forgiveness, but, just as the first verse related to us, this is truly a national issue, and once these individuals successfully personally appreciated the gravity of this murder, they were able to facilitate the atonement for the entire nation upon whom the responsibility for this unclaimed death truly sits.
The personality of the Jewish nation is a tremendously complex entity. We, as a people, are to represent God’s chosen nation, a light unto other nations; however, the bulk of the mitzvot given to us to attain such a lofty goal are directed to the individual. God’s Torah is simultaneously a national document and an individual’s manual; to reach a nation of perfection, that entity must be comprised of perfected individuals. As illustrated through the process of eglah arufa, while the mitzvot God demands of us may be directed to the specific person to perform, the objective of each of those actions is to create a stronger, more complete Jewish people.