Parshas Shoftim is bookended by the command at the beginning fo the parsha to appoint judges to decide the law and police to enforce it, and at the end by the mitzvah of egla arufa, the ceremony involving breaking the neck of an unyoked cow when a murder victim is discovered between municipalities and the guilty party has not yet been identified.
An indispensable element of the ritual is that the elders of the town measured to have been closest to the corpse are to wash their hands and declare “our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see” [Dev. 21:7].
Essentially there are two angles to the import of this declaration, answering the possible question of why there is even a premise regarding the ostensible culpability of the leadership of the town: as delineated in M. Sotah 9:6: “Does it ever occur to us that the elders of the local court are murderers? … rather (they are declaring) that we were never approached by this individual and we never deliberately sent him away without food; we never saw him setting out on a journey and are not to be blamed for allowing him to travel without a protective entourage”. This would seem to indicate that there was a chain of failures in the social order that led to this killing; in fact, one theory is that the person killed was a starving individual engaged in mugging a traveler who killed his attacker in self-defense.
Much is made of this social welfare talking point in chinuch and other circles, especially since it provides an invariable opportunity to instruct about how those “on a higher spiritual level should be acutely aware that their actions do not take place in a vacuum…The Darchei Mussar [says] that had the Elders been flawed in a way that faintly resembles murder, then there would have been a ripple effect to the other people in the city. This is because the behavior of the greatest people in a community filters down to everyone else. Had the elders had a minor flaw in their relating to the value of life then everyone else would also weaken in their respect for the value of life. This could affect those on the lowest level to the extent that it could even be possible that one of them stoop to the level of actually murdering a person.”
However, the emphasis on that mussar angle might possibly detract from the most basic lesson, one sorely in need of forceful repetition in a day and age where there are some who think ending policing is a good idea—nay, a righteous mandate.
Sforno sets it out: “we have not left a stone unturned in (making public) locating the murderer; we are certain that the murderer did not commit this act where he could be seen. Had he been seen, he would have been challenged and prevented from committing the deed. At the very least, such witnesses would have come forward.” This implies that there is at least a semblance of a robust system of law enforcement, or at least that there is a desire to maintain same and to expend the effort to make it work.
That brings us back to the beginning of the parsha, where Ibn Ezra explains how far this system should extend: “Although you go three times a year to see the Kohanim who serve in the Sanctuary, there to ask them questions about our statutes and laws, you still do not fulfill your duty unless you have judges in each of your city gates…The judge dispenses justice, whereas the officer enforces it.”
One could also posit that egla arufa is a Divine recognition that any system of law enforcement—even a/the Divienly mandated one—is run by humans, and as a result will inevitably incur human failures, sometimes—if not often—with deadly results. Yet this never is to lead one to believe that the cure is either doing away with the system entirely. One Mishnah often cited by progressives is Makkos 1:10, where one finds the argument about a Sanhedrin that ostensibly executes even once too often: “A sanhedrin that executes once in seven years, is called murderous. Rabbi Eliezer b. Azariah Says: once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: “Had we been members of a sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death.” Progressive types never seem to quote the final clause of that same Mishnah: “Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel remarked: “They would also multiply murderers…”
Avot 3:2 tells us: “pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive.” It might seem incongruous that the Mishnah uses the term “shlomah” for welfare and then notes that the government in question needs to inspire “morah”, or fear. And yet this is what we are precisely praying for: a stable system of law enforcement that inspires at least fear of the consequences of attempting to upend the social order. It’s no accident that demographics who ostensibly have reason to fear overpolicing and inequitable policing still strongly desire that local police presence be maintained or even increased–by an overwhelming majority.
TB Brachot 28b relates that when Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai was on his deathbed, his students asked him to bless them: “He said: May it be His will that the fear of Heaven shall be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood. His students were puzzled and said: To that point and not beyond? Shouldn’t one fear God more? He said to them: Would that a person achieve that level of fear…Know that when one commits a transgression, he says to himself: I hope that no man will see me.”
We need to pray for that fear.
We need more police.