At the end of this week’s parashah, the Torah relates a bizarre atonement ritual, which was to be carried out in the event of the discovery of the body of an unsolved murder victim. In this meticulously choreographed ceremony, the ritual of the “eglah arufa”, the elders of the town closest to the place where the murder victim was found, would assemble in a dried-up wadi where they would break the neck of a heifer, wash their hands over the slaughtered animal and declare their innocence of the unsolved murder: “Our hands did not shed this blood and our eyes did not see. Atone for your people Israel whom You ransomed and do not put innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel, and let the blood be atoned for them.” (Deut. 21:8)
The Mishnah notes that this ceremony became obsolete when murders became too numerous rendering the ceremony superfluous. (See Mishnah Sotah 9:9) Even so, the Mishnah injects a strong moral message into its description of this strange ceremony: “The elders of the city washed their hands at the place where the heifer’s neck was broken, saying, ‘Our hands have not shed this blood, nether have our eyes seen it’. But could it have occurred to anyone that the elders of the court were shedders of blood? Rather, [its intention was to say:] it was not the case that he came into our hands and we sent him away without food, nor did we see him and let him go without proper accompaniment.” (Ibid. 9:6)
This Mishnah comes to remind us that responsibility for criminal behavior is not solely in the hands of the wrongdoers. It is a societal obligation to protect the wellbeing of its members and those who interact with it and to save them from harm. When these duties are not carried out, this Mishnah states clearly that the community is not free of liability. Similarly, another purpose of this ceremony is to drive home the idea that crime does not rise up in a vacuum. For a society to be truly “innocent”, it must do its best not to nurture crime. This does not mean just being “tough on crime”; it means trying to create an environment where people do not turn to crime. Where this is not a societal priority, it is no wonder that a ceremony like that of the “eglah arufah”, which was only meaningful when it was a curiosity, lost all meaning. In such a society “washing one’s hands” will not absolve anyone of responsibility.