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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Shof'tim 5765
Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
September 10, 2005     6 Elul 5765

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Rabbi Hananiah, the Deputy High Priest, taught: "Pray for the welfare of the government, for if people did not fear it, they would swallow each other alive" (Pirkei Avot 3:2, trans. Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, 264). His sage counsel bespoke bitter experience. He was an eyewitness to the misguided rebellion against Rome by Judea in 66 CE with its catastrophic results: the taking of 97,000 prisoners and of 1,100,000 lives and the razing of Jerusalem and its Temple (Josephus, The Jewish War, VI line 420; VII line 1). In time, the synagogue would act on his advice by introducing a special prayer on Shabbat and festivals for the benefit of the government in whose domain Jews happened to be living, a version of which we offer to this day after the Torah reading (Sim Shalom, 148).

The past two weeks, the words of R. Hananiah have been very much on my mind as I watched in horror with all Americans the unraveling of law and order in the murky waters of New Orleans. Among the impoverished masses temporarily trapped and abandoned, panic, desperation, greed, and lust converged to erupt in repeated outbursts of raw violence. The inattention and unpreparedness of the federal government for a cataclysm long known to be waiting to happen exposed again a largely stratified society, where individual freedom continues to run roughshod over a fair measure of equality for all. A viable democracy cannot survive on either pillar alone. In the months ahead, investigative commissions without number will seek to plot missteps, assign blame, and propose initiatives. But how will politicians, for whom winning is everything, cleanse themselves collectively of guilt where no one is directly culpable? How do we spiritually atone for the stain left on our body politic by Katrina's assault?

This week's parashah, which takes up the contours of good governance, among other subjects, actually addresses the issue with an exotic proposal. What is to be done with the discovery of a slain corpse in an open field when no one has any notion as to who might have committed the crime? In a rural society with minimal security between villages, such cases must have not been rare.

The Torah prescribes a ritual of atonement. The unpunished murder of a stranger polluted the land. When Cain killed his brother Abel in a fit of jealousy, God accused him: "What have you done? Hark, your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground" (Genesis 4:10). Without justice being done, Abel's innocent blood would defile the land. Deuteronomy returns to the case. The earth must be cleansed of bloodguilt in a public ceremony whose awesomeness might just induce the culprit or an accomplice to step forward.

The elders and magistrates from the town nearest the corpse are to take a heifer that has never been yoked or worked. At a wadi that never runs dry, they are to break its neck from the back (with a hatchet according to the Rabbis, thus not a sacrifice) and wash their hands over it (rather than laying them upon it, thus no scapegoat). At which point the elders are required to declare publicly that they were not party to the crime either as perpetrators or bystanders: "Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done" (21:7).

The Mishnah elaborates. Is it conceivable that we might suspect a court of law of committing murder? Hardly. The intent of the confession is to exonerate the elders of facilitating the travesty by their indifference. "We did not send him away without provisions nor let him go unaccompanied" (Sotah 9:6). That is, we know the victim; he approached us and we did help him. We do not bear even an indirect responsibility for his death. Only then can the elders complete this rite of purgation by beseeching God to absolve "Your people Israel whom You redeemed and do not let guilt for blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel" (21:8).

It is significant that the Torah adds the salient detail that the land alongside the wadi was to be barren. Modern commentators have scarcely improved on the Talmud's explanation of this perplexing rite. What links its components is precisely the theme of barrenness. God said, "Let the neck of a heifer that has not yet given birth be broken at a site which is wholly unfertile to atone for a human being who was stripped of his right to have offspring" (BT Sotah 46a). In short, all the parts contribute to the message of the whole. Though not directly responsible, the elders lament the loss of life with all its promise. The crime has not only desecrated the image of God imprinted in every human soul, but also diminished the capacity of society to sustain itself. The ritual cleanses because it forces conscience to the fore. Without remorse, there can be no forgiveness.

I have often wondered if office holders should not be made to undergo a rite of purification when the public suspects their culpability. Not an investigation in which they exercise their right to defend their actions, but a sacred setting in which they might give voice to their feelings of remorse and sense of fallibility. Their oath of office, taken on a Bible, implies a duty to God as well as society. An occasional confession in the house of worship of their choice might even reinforce the sanctity of their public trust. It certainly would give authority a more human face.

Of course, I must acknowledge that the scale of things makes a difference. The biblical ideal fell victim to the rampant violence that marked the years prior to the uprising against Roman rule. The Mishnah records laconically that as the number of murderers (i.e., political zealots) roaming the countryside increased, the rite of breaking a heifer's neck was abandoned (Sotah 9:9). Circumstances had rendered a divine injunction unfeasible and ineffectual. With blood flowing like water, the soil of Judea became irremediably impure.

But the ideal remains valid even in contemporary America. Office holders are accountable to God as well as to their constituencies, otherwise they would not swear on Scripture. And for God, humility has always been one of the qualifications of leadership. Moses looms as the greatest of ancient Israel's leaders because in part at least he was also the humblest of men (Numbers 12:3).

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Shof'tim are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.