The Value of Life.
Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 )
Devarim, 21:1: If a corpse will be found on the Land that Hashem your God, gives you to possess it, fallen in the field, it was not known who smote him. Your elders and judges shall go out and measure toward the cities that are around the corpse.
Devarim, 21:6-7: All the elders of that city, who are nearest the corpse, shall wash their hands over the heifer that was axed in the valley. They shall speak up and say, "Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes did not see."
Rashi, 21:7: sv. Our hands have not spilled: Would anyone believe that the elders of the Beit Din were murderers?! Rather, [they were saying] "We did not see him [the traveler] and we did not allow him to leave without food or escort".
The Torah Portion ends with the laws of the egla arufa (axed heifer) which apply when a person is found murdered outside a city. The Elders of that city have to declare that they had no part in this murder. Rashi, based on the Gemara,(1) explains that it was obvious that the Elders played no active part in the heinous crime, rather they must remove the suspicion that they did not provide for the visitor in the proper way by providing him with food and escorting him on his way out. The commentaries ask; how exactly does not providing for him constitute anything resembling murder?
The Darchei Mussar offers a powerful answer.(2) He explains that had indeed the Elders not provided food and escort for the traveler then that would have resembled murder for people on their level - he describes it as avizrayhu d'retsicha - an offshoot or accessory of murder. We have explained in the past the Rambam's argument that every sin has numerous offshoots that reflect that sin in some way. He said this in explaining why we confess for numerous sins in the vidui (confession) even if we haven't committed those actual sins. In this vein, murder is the most extreme expression of a lack of consideration for the value of a human life. However, the root of the cause of murder can be found in less serious sins. This includes not providing a person with the attention and care that he deserves as a being created in the Image of God. People on a high spiritual level, such as these Elders, would be viewed on some level as having played a part in the murder of this person had they not given him the proper consideration.
The Darchei Mussar continues 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.
This explanation teaches two vital lessons. One is that people on a higher spiritual level should be acutely aware that their actions do not take place in a vacuum. Thus, any strengthening of their spiritual level can positively affect others, and any weakening of their level can detract from the level of others. The second lesson is to remind us of how important it is to ascribe sufficient importance to our fellow man. This includes people who are visitors or who have recently joined a neighborhood. Indeed it seems that it is more important to focus on such people given their uncomfortable situation. They are in a strange place and do not know anyone there - the most comforting action would be to greet them and perhaps even offer them a place to stay or eat.
There are many stories of how people visited communities or shuls and were ignored by everyone present, with sad consequences. On one occasion the offended party wrote a strong letter of complaint to the Rabbi of the shul. Moreover, a cold welcome can prevent a person from joining a community that could help his and his family's spiritual growth. Conversely many people were greatly encouraged by a friendly word from someone. Upon the death of a great man, numerous strangers came to mourn his death - they were often menial workers and they revealed that his warm greetings and words of concern gave them great encouragement, whilst most other people acted as if they didn't exist. Similarly a warm greeting to new members of a community can make a huge difference in helping them acclimate.
May we merit to apply this lesson and treat every person with the respect and care that he deserves.
1. Sotah, 45b.
2. Quoted in Lekach Tov, Devarim 2, pp.40-41. See there for another answer to this question in the name of the Alter of Kelm.