From Devarim 20, Parashat Shoftim instructs us in the laws of war – how to prepare the soldiers, the rules for taking captives, and how to conduct a siege. The next parasha, Ki Tetze, also describes a scenario during a war – the laws of women captives. However, the last verses of Parashat Shoftim (Devarim 21:1-9) describe an apparently unrelated case – that of the unsolved murder (“eglah arufah”).
We already read laws relating to murder and manslaughter in Devarim 19. So why was the passage of the eglah arufah inserted in the middle of the section dealing with wars?
The commentators offer a number of answers to this question. I’ll now share my own insight.
If we look at the laws of war, they are primarily focused on the preparation for a successful campaign, and the outcome of victory. The soldiers are instructed to not be fearful, and if the enemy rejects the initial calls for peace, they will be destroyed or taken captive.
While those laws are very important (and indicate a compassionate framework certainly not found in other nations at the time), there is no discussion of the human cost of war. While even the fate of trees is considered, what about the humans who are victims of these violent conflicts?
To me, this appears to be the intent of the eglah arufah passage. Here is the story of a person killed. We don’t know the background of the victim, nor the motive of the killer. And yet the entire community (through their leaders) is instructed to take responsibility and declare, “’Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes have not witnessed it … Forgive Your people, whom You, God, have liberated. Do not allow [the guilt for] innocent blood to remain with your people Israel.” (Devarim 21:7-8).
Because of the vastly different natures of war, crime, and domestic conflict we have a tendency to rationalize one situation over another, and even justify certain deaths as defensible under the circumstances. But at the end of the day, each person killed is a world unto themselves and deserves the attention that the eglah arufah ceremony entails.
If we take a close look at the words of the eglah arufah passage, we can also see that intent. There are many echoes of a story recorded long before it – the killing of Hevel by Kayin. Among the linguistic parallels, we read that both occur in a field (Bereshit 4:8, Devarim 21:1), there are repeated mentions of blood (Bereshit 4:10-11, Devarim 21:7-9) and land (Bereshit 4:10-12, Devarim 21:1). Kayin will work the ground but it will not produce for him (Bereshit 4:12), and in the eglah arufah ceremony neither the calf (Devarim 21:3) nor the land (Devarim 21:4) can be worked (perhaps parallel to Hevel who raised livestock and Kayin, the farmer).
The lesson from these parallels is seen in the response to the killing. Kayin takes no responsibility for Hevel’s death (“Am I my brother’s keeper?” – Bereshit 4:9), but the elders, after the unsolved murder, need to ask for atonement, even if they were not directly involved in the murder.
The first killing of a human is ultimately equal to all those that followed. And just as we don’t know what Kayin said to Hevel in the field before the attack, and we don’t know what led to the murder described in the eglah arufah passage, the motivation for killing, even in war, does not fully blur the final result – the death of a human being.
.Especially in war, we need to keep this message in mind. It’s very easy to consider the victims of war a statistic, not as a divine creation. But in the middle of the laws of war, the Torah commands us to pause, and remember that if we become immune to the effects of bloodshed, we will not last long on the land we have conquered. The land was cursed for Kayin after killing Hevel, and the land could be cursed as a result of this unsolved murder. Only by preserving the sanctity of life will we merit to remain on the land.