Parasha Shoftim

As a child, I read about European Jews from the shtetl  always accompanying departing guests not only to the door, but out to the street and a bit down the block. I actually saw this once myself at a family friend’s home in Dallas.  This person actually has a “Dalet Amos” line painted on his sidewalk, and it does arouse a good bit of conversation and good will.  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?

Years later I found a basis for his custom in the world of Torah, specifically in this week’s Torah portion Parashah Shoftim. The final story 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 was not known.  The elders, along with the Kohanim, 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 ofIsrael, that innocent blood not stain the land.  Keep reading, I probably have your curiosity.

In Mishnah Sotah 9:6, the anonymous teacher asks in shock, “Would anyone think that 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 dalet amot or four cubits (approximately eight feet).  There may also be an allusion to biblical horror stories such as the angels in Sodom or the concubine in Giveah (Judges 19:2), where the mean streets are not safe for visitors without local escort. The Mishnah’s language is repeated in commentaries such as Rashi on this verse and in codes such as Rambam’s Hilkhot Rotzeach u-Shemirat Hanefesh 9:3. 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 each day 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 has the ability to change the situation altogether, but each of us has the opportunity to help. I do not recommend handing out cash, but giving food or engaging a person in appropriate conversation can give them physical and spiritual support and help them to survive.

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. Be on the lookout as we are going to amplify our Social Action posture this year, and we will be including ways to help the homeless as part of this expansion.  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. Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham