Lisa Schlaff
Lisa Schlaff

Egla Arufah: The Case for Radical Responsibility

In the Torah portion parsha Shofetim, we encounter the strange ceremony of eglah arufah – the broken heifer. 

If, in the land that the LORD your God is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, א כִּי־יִמָּצֵ֣א חָלָ֗ל בָּאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁר֩ יְקוָ֨ק אֱלֹקיךָ נֹתֵ֤ן לְךָ֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ נֹפֵ֖ל בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖ע מִ֥י הִכָּֽהוּ׃
your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. ב וְיָצְא֥וּ זְקֵנֶ֖יךָ וְשֹׁפְטֶ֑יךָ וּמָדְדוּ֙ אֶל־הֶ֣עָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר סְבִיבֹ֥ת הֶחָלָֽל׃
The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke; ג וְהָיָ֣ה הָעִ֔יר הַקְּרֹבָ֖ה אֶל־הֶחָלָ֑ל וְלָֽקְח֡וּ זִקְנֵי֩ הָעִ֨יר הַהִ֜וא עֶגְלַ֣ת בָּקָ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא־עֻבַּד֙ בָּ֔הּ אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־מָשְׁכָ֖ה בְּעֹֽל׃
and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an everflowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck… ד וְהוֹרִ֡דוּ זִקְנֵי֩ הָעִ֨יר הַהִ֤וא אֶת־הָֽעֶגְלָה֙ אֶל־נַ֣חַל אֵיתָ֔ן אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־יֵעָבֵ֥ד בּ֖וֹ וְלֹ֣א יִזָּרֵ֑עַ וְעָֽרְפוּ־שָׁ֥ם אֶת־הָעֶגְלָ֖ה בַּנָּֽחַל…
Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. ו וְכֹ֗ל זִקְנֵי֙ הָעִ֣יר הַהִ֔וא הַקְּרֹבִ֖ים אֶל־הֶחָלָ֑ל יִרְחֲצוּ֙ אֶת־יְדֵיהֶ֔ם עַל־הָעֶגְלָ֖ה הָעֲרוּפָ֥ה בַנָּֽחַל:
And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. ז וְעָנ֖וּ וְאָמְר֑וּ יָדֵ֗ינוּ לֹ֤א שפכה [שָֽׁפְכוּ֙] אֶת־הַדָּ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה וְעֵינֵ֖ינוּ לֹ֥א רָאֽוּ׃
“Absolve, O LORD, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” (Devarim 21:1-4, 6-8) ח כַּפֵּר֩ לְעַמְּךָ֨ יִשְׂרָאֵ֤ל אֲשֶׁר־פָּדִ֙יתָ֙ יְקוָ֔ק וְאַל־תִּתֵּן֙ דָּ֣ם נָקִ֔י בְּקֶ֖רֶב עַמְּךָ֣ יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל – וְנִכַּפֵּ֥ר לָהֶ֖ם הַדָּֽם׃

There are many questions to ask about this ceremony. Why specifically a heifer? Why a flowing wadi? Why must the wadi be barren? Why the washing of the hands? But the question that looms above them all is: what is the ultimate purpose of this ceremony? What does the Torah mean for us to accomplish through this unique ritual?

In grappling with this question, Torah commentators interpreted the ceremony as a type of communal atonement for the tragedy. If a proximate tragedy occurs, the community is in some way implicated and must take responsibility, even if it did not directly cause the death. This is a lovely idea in theory, but where exactly are the lines of responsibility drawn? How precisely is a community implicated in the death of a stranger? 

The Mishna in Sotah 9, 6 states:

But did we really think that the elders of a court of justice are shedders of blood! Rather, [the intention of their statement is that the man found dead] did not come to us [for help] and we dismissed him without supplying him with food and we did not see him and let him go without escort.  וְכִי עַל דַּעְתֵּנוּ עָלְתָה, שֶׁזִּקְנֵי בֵית דִּין שׁוֹפְכֵי דָמִים הֵן, אֶלָּא שֶׁלֹּא בָא לְיָדֵינוּ וּפְטַרְנוּהוּ בְלֹא מָזוֹן, וְלֹא רְאִינוּהוּ וְהִנַּחְנוּהוּ בְלֹא לְוָיָה. 

the commentators are focused on the responsibility of the community to provide strangers with food and accompaniment. The assumption is that the victim died of starvation or was murdered by highway robbers, a death which would have been avoided had the community properly supported the traveler. A just society is not only responsible to itself, but should ensure the safety and well being of those who pass through it.

The Ibn Ezra (commenting on Deuteronomy 21:7) takes this idea a step further and implicates the community for allowing the dangerous roads to exist in the first place. In so doing, he shifts the responsibility of the community from a need to accompany strangers on a one-off basis to providing basic infrastructure that allows for safe passage near the town. This murder is not a one time event, but highlights the town’s negligence in ensuring the safety of the roads. For that, the town must atone.

Both the Mishnah and the Ibn Ezra’s extension of it are focused on the town’s responsibility to abrogate the root causes of tragedy. The town may not have directly murdered the victim, but in neglecting to address systemic societal problems such as hunger and safety, they are indeed responsible.

The Abarbanel takes this notion of communal responsibility to an entirely different, and quite radical level. The Abarbanel implicates the leaders for neglecting to educate the community to uphold moral standards. Murder is not viewed as the act of one evil person, but as the failure of an entire educational system which did not appropriately stress Torah ethics. Here again, the community is responsible for the root causes of tragedy – a just society must proactively establish an educational system that stresses the value of every human life.

Put together, these readings of what the community must take responsibility for in the ceremony of the broken heifer represent a plea to proactively address the root causes of tragedy. Preventing tragedy means everyone needs access to food. Preventing tragedy means ensuring safe infrastructure. And preventing tragedy means providing basic moral education. Let us work towards a world in which we are able to say:

Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. יָדֵ֗ינוּ לֹ֤א שפכה [שָֽׁפְכוּ֙] אֶת־הַדָּ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה וְעֵינֵ֖ינוּ לֹ֥א רָאֽוּ.

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About the Author
Rabbanit Lisa Schlaff is the Director of Judaic Studies at SAR High School in Riverdale, New York where she teaches Gemara and Tanakh and supervises Israel Guidance. At SAR, Rabbanit Lisa has piloted an innovative Jewish sexual ethics curriculum and is currently co-leading a faculty research group on spirituality. She has an EdM in Curriculum Development from Teacher’s College, Columbia University and has completed coursework towards a doctorate in Talmud at New York University. Rabbanit Lisa has studied and taught at the Drisha Institute and is a graduate of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship program. She is a co-founder of the Darkhei Noam minyan in Manhattan.
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