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Every Life is Precious

Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 )

by Rabbi Yissocher Frand

A murder victim is found in a field out in the open country between two cities. There are no witnesses and no clues to the identity of his assailant. The Torah demands an exact measurement to determine the closest city. The elders of that city have to declare, “We were not derelict in our responsibilities to this traveler. Our hands did not spill this innocent blood.” Then they go through a process of atonement called the eglah arufah, the decapitated calf.

These laws seem to be incongruously wedged in between two chapters that talk about going out to war. What is it doing there?

Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, my Rosh Yeshivah, explains that the Torah is teaching us a lesson. In times of war, life becomes incredibly cheap. People are dying left and right, men, women, children, soldiers, civilians. Life somehow loses it value.

Therefore, right in the middle of the discussion of war, the Torah interrupts to present the laws of eglah arufah, laws that underscore the extreme preciousness of each individual life. An entire city must bring atonement for the loss of one unidentified person who may or may not have passed through unnoticed.

The Shemen Hatov suggests that this may be why Yaakov learned the laws of eglah arufah with Yosef on their last day together. Perhaps Yaakov’s soul felt intuitively that Yosef would become the leader of a huge and powerful nation, that he would have the power of life and death over millions and millions of people. Therefore, it was important to teach him about eglah arufah to impress on him the importance of every single human life.

Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, the rav of Brisk, once called a special meeting in the shul. “My dear friends, we have a serious problem. The Czar’s police have arrested a young Jewish boy.”

“What did he do?” asked a congregant.

“He burned the Czar in effigy.”

The man slapped his forehead in frustration.

“Regardless of what he has done,” Rav Chaim continued, “the boy is in danger. We must get him out immediately. It is a question of money. Just money.”

“How much money?”

Rav Chaim mentioned the sum. It was an exorbitant amount, and people gasped audibly.

“We are faced with a great mitzvah,” said Rav Chaim. “This is true pidyon shevuyim, ransoming captives.”

“Who is the boy?” one man wanted to know. “Is he a yeshivah boy?”

“No,” said Rav Chaim.

“Is he a member of our shul? Is he someone we know?”


“Is he religious?”

“I’m afraid not. At least not yet.”

One of the men threw up his hands in frustration. “How will we raise money for a boy like that? And such a large sum!”

“I don’t know,” Reb Chaim said, “but somehow it must be done. I am not coming to shul on Yom Kippur until the money is collected.”

Time passed, and only a small amount of money was raised.

Yom Kippur came. It was time for Kol Nidrei, and Rav Chaim still had not come to shul. The elders of the community went to his house.

“I told you,” he said. “I am not coming until you raise the money. It doesn’t matter if the boy is religious or not. A Jewish soul is a Jewish soul!”

The community raised the money to ransom the boy.

Every life is precious.

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