More than once I have read of European Jews from the shtetl accompanying departing guests not only to the door but also out to the street and down the block. I actually saw this once myself at a family friend's home in Dallas. This person actually has a "Daled Amos" line painted on his sidewalk, and it does arouse a bit of conversation and much goodwill. The significance of this act eluded me at first-was the person signaling reluctance to see the guests leave? Just eager to get some fresh air after a lavish meal? Or was this some sort of chivalry?
A few weeks later I found a basis for his custom in this week's Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim. The final episode we read is known as the Eglah Arufah. The city elders were forced to visit the crime scene where a murder victim had been found and the perpetrator not known. The elders, along with the Kohanim (the priests), would decapitate a calf, wash their hands and announce, "Our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see [the crime]." After this they prayed that God would atone for the sins of Israel, that innocent blood not stain the land. Keep reading, I hope I have your curiosity.
In Mishnah Sotah 9:6, the anonymous teacher asks in shock, "Would anyone think these elders had actually killed the victim? Why then do they have to say, 'our hands did not spill this blood'? " The ancient rabbis answer that culpability extends beyond the actual murderer. The elders need to show that this victim was not neglected by their community before the final tragedy occurred. Their statement means, "He didn't come to us for help and get turned away without food; we did not see him alone and leave him without escort."
It is the final failure-to leave someone without escort-which may have been the source of the Jewish custom to accompany guests beyond our threshold and out into the street, customarily daled amot or four cubits (approximately eight feet). There is even a Hasidic twist brought by the Sefat Emet, who says that the mitzvot are an escort to the soul to protect it on its journey through this dangerous world as it searches for the hidden light of Torah.
These texts call to mind the experience we all have walking down the street or driving and seeing people who have no shelter-who are alone in the world, exposed, and endangered. Not one of us individually has the ability to change the situation altogether, but each of us has the opportunity to help. In my years at the Seminary, I walked up and down Broadway every day in a sea of humanity, being accosted by everything you can imagine. There are numerous charities and agencies appropriate for donations, and I leave that to your discretion, but I would "point" you to Jewish ones.
When we read this parashah, we think about our responsibility not just to avoid committing crimes but also to make our world a better place. Mishnah Sotah teaches us that we are responsible for the lives of people who lack food, shelter and even company. As we end the week and enjoy the blessings of home, food, family and friends, let us think of how to extend such blessings to the most vulnerable people in our very midst.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham