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All the elders of the city… shall say, “Our hands have not spilled this blood and our eyes did not see it." (21:6-7)
The final section of this Parasha focuses on murder. The corpse from an unwitnessed killing is found lying in the open. The Torah requires the elders of the town nearest to the corpse to undergo a public ceremony in which they declare that they had no responsibility for the murder, and they pray for the forgiveness of the people. The actual ceremony is the ‘egla ha-arufa’ – the ‘calf whose neck is broken’ – which is beheaded by the elders of the city in an ‘infertile valley’ (21:4). The Talmud (Sotah 46a) explains: let the young calf, who has not borne fruit, be broken in an infertile valley (21:6) which does not bear fruit, - and atone for the person who did not ‘bear fruit’ – i.e. complete his life. Ibn Ezra suggests that the elders of the city performed the ceremony because they were to some extent suspected as being background cause of the murder: had they successfully led the city according to the Torah’s strict moral standards such a murder would have never happened in the first place.
Nevertheless, the question remains. Why should the elders have to declare that their ‘hands did not spill this blood?’ The Talmud (ibid. 45b) explains that they were not suspected of murder, but of knowing of the traveler, and allowing him to go on his lonely way without food or escort… or in the time-honored words of the British passport, to fail to ‘offer the… protection and assistance as… necessary.’ The Maharal (1526-1609) notes that this declaration implies that the murder might not have happened if the victim had been escorted as required; but he raises the following issue: surely there is no obligation to accompany a wayfarer all the way to the next city? Couldn’t the killing have taken place even if the townsfolk had showed exemplary hospitality to the victim?
The Maharal resolves this difficulty in the following way. When a host takes the trouble to escort a stranger part of the way, he shows that he feels solidarity with him. When people have such positive feelings towards one another, G-d responds by providing an extra measure of protection. If, however, they had, in effect, written the traveler out of the community, he does not have this protection.
In addition, it could be suggested that a person’s ability to cope with an attacker (both physical and verbal) greatly depends on his or her state of mind at the time. Applied to the above situation, when a person has been made to feel welcome in a strange town, he leaves feeling good about himself. He has the self-respect to face trouble with maximum advantage, which may well give him the strength to fight off the attacker. When he travels with a sense of being anonymous, unwanted, and vaguely resentful towards an inhospitable community, he has lost some of his self-respect and may become depressed, feeling worthless – becoming easy prey for a violent criminal – who will have sensed his poor self-image before deciding to attack. Thus the attitude of the community towards the stranger directly influences the extent of his being vulnerable after leaving them.
The same applies to much broader issues. In 1941, few doubted that it would be only a matter of days until Britain would fall to Nazi Germany. Yet Prime Minister Winston Churchill raised the morale of his people with the sincerity of his famous speeches – “We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the hills, we shall fight them in the cities – we shall never surrender” – with the honest conviction that galvanized the population to put their maximum into the war effort. Historians recognize that high morale was a key element in Britain’s survival of the Battle of Britain of 1941.
This principle is also implied in the following verse, earlier in this Parasha, in the context of going into war:
The officers shall continue speaking to the people and say, “Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, and let him not melt the heart of his fellows…” (20:8).
This is vital, because, as the Talmud (Sotah 44a) explains:
Running away from the enemy is the beginning of being defeated.
Thus the Torah recognizes that despair not only makes individuals vulnerable, but that it can spread like wildfire in the battle situation, and by extension, in a situation when whole communities lose hope in being able to defend themselves against attack from factions within the geographical boundaries of their own people.
The Prophets showed true spiritual leadership. No Prophet ever completely despaired. True, many conveyed the threats of utter doom, but that was always accompanied with a message of hope should the Israelites repent.
We learn from this discussion of the importance of showing a positive interest in visitors – both expected and unexpected, to the community: irrespective of level of learning and observance, and socio-economic status. He or she should not feel anonymous. (Indeed, the Bedouin hospitality extends to providing the guest with board and lodging, and ensuring he is escorted in safety towards his next destination.) And on the greater scale, we see the importance of leading the community – and the nation - with the conviction that a forward-looking and confident outlook can give the nation the necessary psyche and motivation to face even the most implacable enemies to maximum advantage.
As a postscript… after many years and three test failures I virtually gave up hope of ever learning to drive. My teacher was a young man with endless patience, but he begged me to postpone the date of my test because he was sure I would fail once more, and at the same time he expressed the view that I belonged to the class of people that didn’t have the necessary aptitude to drive at all. Before I could do so, he had to suddenly leave for another part of the country. His place was taken by an elderly man who watched my driving and said: “Nonsense! You can learn to drive! You have the latent ability – it just needs to be brought out of you! And yes… thanks to him I did get through on the fourth attempt.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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