We, the Elders
This week's parsha details many laws between Man and Man. At the end of the parsha we are taught the strange ceremony that is performed by the Elders of the court if a dead person is found between two cities and we don't know how he was killed or who killed him.
"And they (i.e. the Elders) answered and said 'Our hands have not shed this blood nor have our eyes seen (this act).' "
Our hands have not shed - RASHI: Is it possible to imagine that that the Elders of the court committed murder? Rather, "We did not observe him and dismiss him, without food and without escort." The Priests say: "Forgive your people Israel, etc...."
WHAT IS RASHI SAYING?
What is bothering Rashi is clear. He begins his comment with the question: Why should the Elders of the city need to absolve themselves of this murder? They are not the accused party. Therefore, Rashi reinterprets these words to mean, "We, the Elders, have not neglected this stranger, letting him off without food or letting him leave without accompanying him." The implication is that since we took good care of him when he visited our city, his unfortunate demise cannot, even indirectly, be attributed to us.
We should point out that Rashi mentions two points in the Elders' statement. First, that they didn't see him and second, that they didn't let him go without food. The meaning is that had they seen him they would have provided him with food and escort. It should be noted that the two parts of this statement are parallel to the two parts in the Torah verse. The Torah's words, "Our hands did not shed this blood" are paralleled in Rashi by "we did not dismiss him without food and escort." And the Torah's words, "Our eyes did not see" are paralleled in Rashi by, "We did not see him."
Looking at this comment, do you have a question?
Question: It is understandable that had the victim been escorted, his murder might have been prevented. But what does going without food have to do with his having been murdered? If he had had food, would that have prevented his murder?
An Answer: Rashi himself in his Talmud commentary on Sotah 45b, says that being without food might have led the man to attack others to obtain food. His aggressive and illegal behavior may have brought him into physical confrontation, which then may have resulted in his being murdered. Had he been given food by the city people, he never would have gotten into trouble. And this is the significance of the Elders' denial, "we did not dismiss him without food."
But we can ask another question, regarding the last words in this Rashi-comment:
THE PRIESTS SAY: FORGIVE YOUR PEOPLE ISRAEL, ETC.
A Question: Why does Rashi add these words? Actually these are the Torah's words. Why does the Torah add them? After the Elders' have claimed total innocence, of either directly or indirectly, being party to this man's death, why is there any need for atonement? Atonement means a sin has been atoned for. What sin?
UNDERSTANDING THE TORAH'S WORDS
Answer: There is a corpus delicti, the murdered body is lying in front of us. So a murder was committed. There's no denying that. The Elders of the city have proclaimed their innocence; as leaders of the community they acted responsibly. But nevertheless, someone did commit a murder. It is for this crime that the Priests have to request atonement from God.
EGLAH ARUFA: A MITZVAH WITH MEANING
The Eglah Arufa ceremony is quite strange. A young calf is taken to a stony valley that has never produced crops. There it is killed by breaking its neck and the Elders and Priests make their public declarations. There is much symbolism here (see Rashi on 21:4). But can the ceremony as a whole be rationalized?
The Abarbanel explains that this public ceremony, with it dramatic center-piece of breaking the calf's neck followed by short public statements by community leaders, is meant to awaken people's attention and cause public outrage to this humanly caused tragedy. Modern society knows only too well how inured we can become to even the most shattering obscenities, if they happen often enough. We are aware how the crime-filled newspapers, that we read daily, contribute to our growing insensitivity and to our moral paralysis. As has been said about the Holocaust, one death is a tragedy, six million is a statistic. The Torah, aware of the human inclination towards habituation, created the shocking Eglah Arufah ceremony to shake us and shock us out of our moral slumber. So that we don't conduct business as usual when a human being's life has been snuffed out through violence.