Shofetim – Thoughts on the Perasha

Much has been spoken in the last 2 years about secure borders, a wall, and the responsibility of a leader to protect his home, his city or his nation from intruders that have the intent to hurt their host. I believe, everyone agrees that it is important to protect oneself and one’s own territory, from trespassing and from anyone who is bent to commit crimes against the people and inhabitants that live in that territory. The question is how little and ineffective or how much and extreme of a protection is necessary. This is where the disagreement is all about.

Perashat Shofetim begins with a call by Moshe to the Israelites instructing them, as they enter the Land of Israel, to establish Judges and officers to enforce the law and protect the inhabitants. Such courts and officers are to be established in every city in the land and for each tribe. The officers would have the responsibility to enforce the law and would circulate in the markets and in the streets to make sure the law is not being violated and summon violators to the courts for adjudication. The reason for such a plan is that, if there were to be a breakdown of respect for the law and its obeisance, the downfall of the nation could not be far behind; such a breakdown would lead to anarchy.

The rest of the Perasha deals with laws directed to the leaders of the nation that have the responsibility to lead and protect.

Interestingly enough, the Perasha ends with a famous paragraph known by the name of “Egla Arufa – The Axed Heifer”.

The paragraph begins with a situation where a corpse/cadaver is found lying in a field in between two cities with no clue as to his murderer.  A whole procedure was to be done to shed light as to who may be responsible for it. That responsibility extends not only to the murderer itself but also to the communal and political leadership for their neglect and indifference in caring, policing and protecting the population and the vulnerable.

The process begins with the elders and leaders measuring the distance between the cadaver and the closest city. Once that was established, the elders and leaders of that city shall take a heifer that has not being worked at all. They shall take the heifer down to a valley and put her through a process after which they will wash their hands over the heifer and say: “Our hands have not spilled this blood and our eyes did not see… Atone for Your people and do not place innocent blood in the midst of Your people”. The Perasha concludes by alluding as though G-d Himself answers: “But you shall remove the innocent blood from your midst when you do what is upright in the eyes of G-d”

This is a public ritual that the elders and the leaders perform in which they declare that they were not culpable for the murder and they pray for forgiveness and atonement. Why is it that the elders and the leaders have to perform such a public ritual, declare their innocence and ask for forgiveness?

We can state that this declaration seems almost ludicrous! Did anyone suspect the elders and the leaders of murder? If they meant to say that they did not know how to protect someone and allowed him to face such a fate, then they would have been guilty of such a neglect, and they would have blood on their hands – such is the responsibility of leaders, and therefore the declaration would be irrelevant. Another commentator Rabbi Obadiah Seforno of the 15th century Italy is of the opinion that the elders meant to say that they did not permit a known murderer to ram the land, therefore they, literally, wash their hands from the responsibility of the murder.

The answer, however, is obvious: it is the responsibility of the leadership of the land to protect and police the cities; it is their duty to do so.  It behooves the leadership to accept such a responsibility before they declare their innocence. If there was no responsibility and partial culpability, a declaration of innocence would be superfluous and unnecessary. The Sage and commentator Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra of the 11th century Spain, is of the opinion that the elders have a degree of responsibility because if crime and sinfulness had not been present in their town, due to their lack of the enforcement of the law and policing, such a mishap would not have occurred.

Clearly, we can conclude from these passages and the commentaries that it is the responsibility of the leaders of each community, city and nation to provide protection to their inhabitants, to educate, police, prevent crimes and enforce the laws among the population so there will not be an opportunity to commit a crime. A lackadaisical approach with an air of neglect and hoping against hope that crime will not take place, given the ripe circumstances for a crime to be committed, places the leadership in a situation of responsibility for the crime. That is a responsibility that ought not to be taken lightly. The verse that the Perasha concludes with “But you shall remove the innocent blood from your midst when you do what is upright in the eyes of G-d”, seems to be an exhortation by G-d or Moshe, that the only way to ‘remove the innocent blood’, meaning the preventing of the shedding of innocent blood, is ‘when you do what is upright in the eyes of G-d’. And ‘the upright in the eyes of G-d’ is the fulfillment of the responsibility of the leadership to police, enforce, provide protection and prevent crimes from being committed. When that is done, there will be no innocent blood shed.

How little and ineffective or how much and extreme of a policing, protection and prevention is necessary? The answer is obvious; it cannot be so little to be so ineffective! How much then? It depends on the times, the circumstances, the likelihood of a crime and the societal environment.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Elie Abadie, M.D.



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