Parshat Shoftim (andthe beginning of next week’s reading) dwells on warfare and the Torah’s attempt to bring a sense of ethics into what is a violent and murderous environment. Read with contemporary eyes, these verses are shocking. A city that capitulates to the Israelite army and sues for peace is to be enslaved; a city that offers resistance is to have all men killed and all women and children enslaved; a Canaanite city is to be utterly obliterated. The only survivors are to be the fruit trees, which must be spared. (Ironically, this is the major source for a progressive value in our parshah, ba’al tashchit—don’t wipe out trees, just people.)
The cumulative impact of these verses is disturbing, especially in light of the past century of genocide and ethnic cleansing. What redemptive message can we find? There is nothing redemptive that I can say about cherem, war and total annihilation, except that this practice of ethnic cleansing, prescribed in kibbush ha’aretz, conquering of the land, is proscribed for any subsequent conflict. There are lessons from these passages. Kohelet Yaakov, Rabbi Shlomo ben Yehudah Kluger, a mid-1800 Glacian maggid or chief judge and prolific author, tells us that the eglah arufa interrupts the battle scenes that end our parshah and begins the next one. It breaks up the descriptions of war and the treatment of captives for a reason.
In the battle scenes we can imagine thousands of victims strewn about the land. But in the eglah arufa episode, just one unidentified victim is found and the slayer unknown. What is done? For one single life, the machinery of government grinds to a halt. The elders of the people are summoned to march into a remote ravine to be held accountable for this life. Can you imagine the elders walking with their canes to this distant scene of the crime?
Why this extravagant demonstration of concern over blood guilt and the pollution of the land? In the midst of a war, it is easy to forget the value of human life. Soldiers returning home have to shift from being killing machines to everyday citizens. Society itself needs to reclaim the sanctity of life. The Torah accepts and even encourages brutal conduct in conquering the land, but then it steps back and requires this elaborate expiation ritual for the loss of a single life. Read this way, the eglah arufa incident is a corrective to the otherwise brutal passages surrounding it. Do not think that life is cheap. War may be necessary at times, but murder remains an affront to the Creator. Why do the elders have to visit the scene? The Etz Hayim (in its commentary on page 1105) tells us that no poor person in the elders’ community should be allowed to go unaided to the point of being driven to a life of crime, and the eglah arufa oath make them even more cognizant of that.
This insight is applicable to our society as well. We are at war every day with the terrorists in our world, and our nation has pursued its enemies with vigor and violence. I am not commenting on what military policy should or should not be followed in the future, but I do want to note the desensitization this fighting has had on the American and Jewish souls, in particular. With constant terror attacks, or even just the threat of them as we had this past week (and just about every week) in the Middle East, we become distorted as a people, and we show ourselves to be callous toward human life. The eglah arufah ritual reminds us that even in the middle of a war (or two), the value of human life must remain sacred, and the elders of our country should be held responsible for creating a society that cannot bear even one murder.
Whatever else we do as part of our heshbon ha'nefesh (our introspection as we begin the month of Elul), let's think about what we can personally contribute to making the world safer and more stable so that more people will be able to experience "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". Or, to use the best known line of our portion, and perhaps one of the greatest in all the Torah, “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof” "Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you shall live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you."
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham