Epilogue 2 - Shoftim: The Line Between Murder And Apathy

Epilogue 2 - Shoftim: The Line Between Murder And Apathy


Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

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Shoftim: Epilogue 2


Here is a fascinating thing I wanted to share with you: the Rambam in his magnum opus, the Yad ha-Hazaka (the code of Jewish law), right after he talks about these laws of the inadvertent killer that we’ve been discussing until now, he discusses another law which at face value seems rather unrelated, but I think if you look carefully at it, it’s not, and it adds a fascinating new dimension to the discussion which we’ve been having. Let me introduce it to you.

Let me begin by just telling you that the Rambam was an extremely methodical thinker, and one of the things you need to think about yourself when you go through his code of Jewish law is the order which he puts things: when he puts things that seem unrelated next to together, it’s usually for a good reason; usually the ideas are not as unrelated as they may seem, and I think that’s the case in spades here. I want to thank actually one of the fellows at our office, Immanuel Shalev, for this insight; I want to share it in his name. The law which the Rambam puts immediately after the laws of the inadvertent killer is the law of the egla arufa—this very strange law of the calf with the broken neck. לרשתה לְךָ נֹתֵן אֱלֹהֶיךָ יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר בָּאֲדָמָה חָלָל כִּי־יִמָּצֵא The story of this calf begins with a corpse found in a field; someone is dead in an open space between cities, and no one knows what happened. No one knows who killed him; it’s an unsolved murder.

What happens in such case? The elders of the cities that are nearby have to go out with a tape measure and to measure which cites are closest to the corpse. Once they distinguish the city that’s closest, the elders of that city need to go out and perform this strange ceremony: they take a little calf, that has never been worked, that has never taken a human yoke—never plowed a field—and the elders of this city take this little calf down into a ravine—a ravine that has never been plowed, that has never been planted in. בַּנָּֽחַל אֶת־הָעֶגְלָה וְעָֽרְפוּ־שָׁם and there they kill the calf, they break its neck in this ravine.

They create this terrible, shocking death—the death of the calf—and at that point the elders of the city need to wash their hands over that calf, and they need to say something: they need to say, רָאֽוּ לֹא וְעֵינֵינוּ הַזֶּה םדָּאֶת־הַ שֶׂפכה לֹא יָדֵינוּ, “our hands have not shed this innocent blood of the man who died by the field.”

And Rashi’s troubled by this. Why do they have to say this? The elders of the city have to say this that they didn’t kill this guy? Of course they didn’t kill this guy. The average demographic for unsolved murderer is not a 75 year old judge. So why do they have to wash their hands and say they didn’t kill this fellow? But Rashi says, it gets to the idea of their responsibility as the authorities in the city. Here’s what Rashi says: the first thing that Rashi tells you is he talks to you about the nature of the tragedy. Why of all things would you need a calf—a young calf that has never worked before? And why of all places to kill it would it be in a ravine which has never been worked before? “it’s as if the Master of the Universe Himself is saying…”; “little calf just one year old”; “that has not yet been in a position to been able to do anything all its life”; “and let it die in a piece of land that also has not yet borne fruits”; all to bring atonement for a murder because what is murder? It’s cutting off a human life—cutting off the ability of a man or a woman from then being able to ever bear fruits. Their whole life is cut short; all of the potentiality—whatever they could have done—is gone. Whatever they could have done forever and for generations is gone and will never come back.

And now who bears responsible for this? One would say, “the murderer,” but the Torah says, “the elders.” “Would you think,” Rashi says… “that the judges, these elders, these are murders? Why would they have to wash their hands?” “what they’re really saying is, ‘we didn’t see this guy before…’” “’…and allow him to go on his way without giving him food and without accompanying him.’” What is the nature of their crime? The crime of the elders is not setting up a system where you know your visitors.

Where when a visitor comes to town, he’s taken care of; when a visitor leaves town, he’s accompanied; he’s given food. A visitor who has an experience in town of being recognized, being taken care, being given food, and being walked out of town walks out with his head held up high. A visitor who’s ignored—no one knew you were there—you walk out on your own—without provisions, without any body saying good-bye. Someone who has been ignored by the townsfolk walks out a kind of shattered human being—vulnerable in the deepest way imaginable—and when that vulnerability ends in murder, those who were apathetic bear the responsibility.

The Rambam takes two crimes of apathy and puts them together. When an inadvertent murders kills because of apathy, it falls to society to protect him, and what’s the very next law that the Rambam talks about? But what if society itself is apathetic, and because of that apathy, someone died? That’s the law of the egla arufa. The Rambam makes clear to us that in Judaism’s playbook, apathy is itself not just a…that in Judaism’s playbook, apathy itself is a crime that must be atoned for.

It is a terrible crime at the individual level, and a terrible crime at the communal level. The community in the end is the last refuge; when individuals fail, it falls to the community to protect them, and the greatest example of that is the inadvertent murderer himself: when he failed to protect, the community must protect him by building a city of refuge. What happens when the community—the last stand, the last resort against apathy—is itself apathetic? We must strive to make sure that our great institutions, our towns and our cities, become the last resort against apathy. When no one else will love, they must extend themselves in love and social kindness. When they do not, then society itself has taken one more step toward the abyss, and the elders of the city must beg atonement from the Master of the Universe.

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