Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 )
The last topic in this week’s parsha is that of eglah arufah, the slain heifer. If a man is found murdered outside of city limits, the Sanhedrin must send judges to the area to measure which city is closest to the man who was found slain. The elders of that city must bring a calf and break its neck in a prescribed place, and they must say, “Yadeinu lo shafchu es ha’dam ha’zeh v’eineinu lo ra’u, Our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see (21:7).”
They are enjoined to proclaim that not only did they not kill the victim themselves, they also did not witness his murder. However, Rashi points out that it is preposterous to suspect that the elders of the city (which means, its elder judges) may have slain the man themselves. Therefore, Chazal explain that what the verse means is that they did not see him and leave him without food and escort. As such, the phrase “and we did not see” is actually the explanation for “our hands did not spill this blood,” – because we did not know of his need for food and escort we are therefore not responsible for his murder.
The powerful implication is starkly apparent: if they had known of his need for food and escort and had neglected to provide him with it, they would have indeed been held responsible for his murder.
A person traveling, passing through an unfamiliar city, is in need of assistance both monetarily as well as needing proper directions as per the safest route to travel. Through this parsha of eglah arufah we are being taught the great extent to which Hashem holds us responsible for one another. If we withhold the kindness that our fellow Jew needs, we are responsible for the outcome of that withheld kindness - albeit indirectly. Yes, if, because they didn’t provide him with rations and escort or direct him along his way, he wound up hungry and tired in dangerous territory, and was murdered, it is as if they themselves spilled his blood!
As such, the statement that the elders make of not having known of the victim’s need for food and escort is the way they proclaim their innocence.
If this is the case, though, why does the next verse say, “Atone for Your nation Yisrael”? If they did not know of his need for food and escort they ought to be totally guilt-free, so why the need for kaparah, atonement?
The answer is that, yes, the people of that city were unaware of his having needed their kindness, and it is therefore not considered as if they spilled his blood; but, they still need kaparah because the very fact that they were unaware of his need is in of itself a wrongdoing that needs correction.
If a city does not have an appointed committee that is responsible for overseeing the needs of hospitality for visitors, it is quite likely that the person in need will not know where to turn to, or he will be too embarrassed to ask for help. He will try to make do on his own rather than put himself in an emotionally vulnerable position of possibly facing rejection. Indeed, the position of one in need is quite precarious.
Many, many people are in need of help but are simply too embarrassed to ask.
So, the slain man really was in need of kindness, and it was essentially the obligation of that city to provide him with that kindness; but because they were unaware of his need, their obligation went unfulfilled. They carry partial responsibility for this omission because if they were truly chesed-oriented, focused on kindness, they would have a system in place which would ensure that all in need would be provided for.
There is a verse in Micha1 that enjoins us to engage in ahavas chesed, loving-kindness. The Chofetz Chaim points out that this demands of us to not only carry out acts of chesed, but also to actually love to engage in doing kindness.
One of the stark points of contrast between one who simply carries out acts of chesed and one who loves kindness is the point that was just elucidated. One who simply does chesed will not go out of his way to find those in need; rather, he will wait until the need for kindness presents itself - and then he of course will carry out his obligation. However, one who loves kindness, will not wait for the need to present itself. Oh no! This person loves doing chesed and he is therefore sensitive to the fact that there are always those in need. And this sensitivity arouses within him the awareness that it is necessary to go out of his way to find those in need and help them.
Many, many people are in need of kindness.
A mother who just gave birth could very well be in desperate need of a helping hand around the house, emotional support, and/or practical guidance. Someone who just moved into the neighborhood could greatly benefit from a kind “tour of the town” - to be informed of where the supermarkets are, banks, schools, etc. Most importantly, the newcomer is in dire need of friendship – this is a tremendous kindness that can unfortunately go so easily overlooked! A person who is ill is in great need of visitors to check up on him and, perhaps more importantly, to cheer him up and provide encouragement. The elderly certainly could use a helping hand in so many ways or some kind companionship. Families with special needs children or other challenging situations are often in need of help and encouragement. And, for that matter, regular, healthy people also need a kind smile or word to infuse their spirits with life and joy. The list just goes on and on. There are so many opportunities for performing chesed and there are so many people who are truly in need of help, whether it be physical, financial, emotional, or otherwise.
The Torah is teaching us that as Hashem’s Holy Nation, we must condition ourselves to being sensitive, kindness-loving people. Indeed, Chazal point out that the Jewish People are particularly distinct in that they are bayshanim, rachmanim, v’gomlei chasadim, modest, compassionate, and kind. It is one of the signature trademarks of the Jew, then, to be constantly aware of and sensitive to the needs of those around him, to love doing chesed, and to therefore be constantly on the lookout for the innumerable opportunities to provide the assistance that is so greatly needed.
The question each individual and community musk ask itself is: do we have all the systems set up and in place to ensure that no one who is need goes overlooked? And are the systems functioning properly? Make sure to bring it up at your next Shul meeting!