Divrei Emmanuel: Words of Torah in Honor of Shabbat Parashat Shoftim 5774

The Eglah Arufah and Modern Police Work: The View of Jewish Police Chaplain

One of the mitzvoth presented in this week’s parshah is the mitzvah of the Eglah Arufah. The Eglah Arufah ritual mitzvah is situational. The Torah tells us that if a person was found murdered along the side of the road between two cities, that a measurement should be taken to see which city he was closest to and that the elders of that city are to engage in the ritual of the Eglah Arufah. They are to take a young firstling female cow that has had no yoke placed upon it previously, and has never been used for work and to bring it into a field that had never been plowed where they are to break the back of the neck of the cow, with a hatchet. The elders are then required to wash their hands over the corpse of the calf and declare “our hands did not do anything that would cause this crime indirectly (or directly) nor did our eyes see this crime occur.” Then they say “Atone for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, Oh God! Do not place (the liability) of innocent blood among your people Israel.” (Deut. 21: 6 -9) If the murder was discovered later he was to be executed “as is proper in the eyes of God.” (Deut. 21: 9)

What is the meaning of this strange ritual? Are there lessons in it that apply to our daily living in the 21st Century or is this simply a ritual of the past that will remain in the past?

First of all lets explain some of the details of the ritual: According to the Rambam (Maimonides), in “Laws of Murder and the Protection of Life” Mishneh Torah 9:1, even if the location of the nearest city were obvious, it is still a mitzvah to measure the distance as commanded in this parsha. The Rambam explains that the process of the mitzvah of Eglah Arufah was so rare that it became a public spectacle and subject of much talk all over town. This is because most probably, the murderer came from the town closest to the murder scene and he would obviously hear that the entire town is concerned about this murder and is active as a result of it. Due to this level of involvement from the citizens the murderer would soon be discovered because someone would emerge that knew something about it. “Furthermore since the place where the neck of the calf is broken can never be cultivated after the cow is killed there remain uncultivated forever, the owner of the field and his family and friends will do everything possible to discover the murderer to prevent the Eglah Arufah ritual from occurring.” (Guide for the Perplexed 3)

This is Maimonides explanation for the ritual, according to the Ramban (Nachmanides) however, this ritual is one of the unexplainable “chukim” statutes of the Torah similar to the red heifer ritual of purification.

What is the symbolism of all of this? According to Rashi the symbolism of this procedure involves a cow which is in its first year of life that has not yielded any fruit either by giving birth or by working was taken into a field that has never yielded fruit and killed there because it represents the individual whose death interrupted his ability to bear fruit. The unworked field represents the fact that no one from that town was aware of the murder and failed to take the steps necessary to prevent it.

If we consider all three of these explanations we can see that each of these focuses on a different aspect of the reason for the ritual. Rambam focuses on the ritual from the point of view of the society that is now confronting the death of an innocent right near their town. By publicizing it, getting involved in it the murderer will be found and perhaps in the future all of this kind of activity may be prevented. Through this ritual the society demonstrates its concern over the death of the individual regardless of whether they knew him or not. Simply by his proximity to the town he becomes the responsibility of all who live there to protect him and provide for him safety and other needs. Rashi focuses the symbolism of the ritual on representing the individual whose blood was shed in the murder. Ramban does not even attempt to explain it since he says that it is one of those unexplainable rituals of the Torah a chok.

One of the lessons learned from this ritual is a law intended to prevent it from happening in the first place. Our Rabbis teach us that it is Jewish law that whenever possible we accompany our guests who have visited us at least a few steps or part of the way towards their next destination, and to provide food for them for the trip when they visit with us. This according to Torah teaching can prevent this type of murder. The person is spiritually safeguarded as much as possible.

According to Rashi’s explanation of the ritual the elders of the city focus on declaring that they did not know the individual and were not involved in murdering him. Would anyone have suspected the leaders or elders of murdering him? How could that be the focus of it? What it really means is that the elders are representing the totality of the city. It was the responsibility of all members of that city to care for any visitor who came to their town. When they make the declaration that no one in the town was responsible for this, the leaders are making a statement for the entire town. According to Rav Avraham Yoffen, the elders are able to make this statement because leaders, elders and Rabbis are often blessed with a sixth sense that allows them to feel when things aren’t going so well for those under their care. A Torah leader is sensitive to the state of his community. If a member of the community is not acting correctly he should sense it himself because it is a reflection of his leadership and should intervene to prevent it from continuing.

The best explanation I have ever received for this ritual actually came from a Detective – a member of the Yonkers Police Department, where I serve as Police Chaplain. I came into the office and he and another officer were busy planning a candlelight vigil to take place in front of the home of a homicide victim. He was on the phone with family members, community leaders and others to attend this event. I remarked to him that it must be difficult solving a murder when you become so personally involved in a case that you would want to organize a memorial service for the victim. I asked him why he did this, wasn’t he supposed to concentrate on solving the murder. The detective explained that in the many years that he was involved in homicide he had noticed that this type of service opens the hearts of potential witnesses who had seen the crime, and promotes their cooperation when they see the victim’s family asking for help. He also said that sometimes the murderer attends the event and this helps to identify potential suspects. “So in a very direct way the candlelight vigil is a very much a part of solving the crime,” he explained. I realized that this is in fact the modern version of the ‘eglah arufa’ and explained to him the biblical source for what he was engaged in. To this day, I am beholden to this detective for explaining to me a biblical ritual which at first glance appears to be obsolete but is in fact a very important and modern part of police work.

We in 21st century America live in a society where no one wants to take responsibility for anything. Recently on television it was reported by means of a video tape where a pedestrian was run over by a car and everyone on the sidewalk simply continued as if nothing had happened. Murders go on daily and we are no longer shocked or up at arms. “Don’t get involved” either directly or even emotionally seems to be the order of the day. In this ritual, the Torah describes a society where the citizens of that town have stopped their daily routines to participate in a ritual that perhaps they do not even understand. (Ramban) But react they must. Even if it has the most remote chance of bringing the murderer to light (Rambam) they do everything they can to stop it. Their reaction to the death of that innocent is not a cold calculated reaction, rather they try to recreate what happened to stir up their own feelings even more and to mourn the loss of that individual. (Rashi).

The Torah’s path is a path of compassion and connection not coldness and separation. Even at the cost of feeling other’s pain we seek it out so that we may continue the connectedness of society. In today’s “advanced culture” which is really primitive compared to the culture outlined in this ritual, we tell each other that we cannot feel others pain either because it wouldn’t help anyways or because it would be too overwhelming for us. But perhaps if we did begin feeling others pain we could highly diminish it so that it would be a rarity.

Because parashat shoftim begins with the command to install police officers and judges, I would like to wish a blessing and salute for all of the men and women who put their lives on the line each and every day to protect our communities. A special salute to Yonkers Police Dept. Officer Goldberg, Officer Serafin Tome San Jenaro and our own Sgt Jose Semorile.

Shabbat Shalom from Rabbi Manny & Rabanit Sandra Viñas and Family

Police Chaplain Rabbi Rigoberto Vinas speaks at Yonkers 9/11 Memorial

Police Chaplain Rabbi Rigoberto Vinas speaks at Yonkers 9/11 Memorial Photo by Robert Kalfus