A corpse. A corpse on Union Street, New Orleans.
It is seven years later and I still cannot get the vision out of my mind.
In the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the New York Times ran a story* about a corpse that remained on the street for days, without anybody giving it much more than a passing glance.
The police knew about it, the National Guard knew about it, but nothing was done. It was just another bludgeoned murder victim, left in the street for days as evidence of the lawlessness and complete breakdown of society that befell New Orleans during those dreadful days.
Aside from the almost surreal nature of the tragedy, what really struck me was that the story ran just two days before we read this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim:
If a slain person is found . . . fallen in the field, [and] it is not known who struck him down . . . your elders and judges shall go out . . . (Deuteronomy 21:1-2).
The Torah goes on to describe a mystical and miraculous procedure that was performed by the leaders of the community. All the details of the process are recounted, in order to highlight the unacceptable reality that a murder took place “on their watch.”
The climax of the procedure is recorded as follows:
All the elders of the city . . . shall wash their hands . . . and they shall proclaim and say: “Our hands have not spilled this blood and our eyes have not seen. Grant atonement to Your nation Israel . . “. (Deuteronomy 21:6-8).
The Talmud asks incredulously: Do we really think that the righteous, pious leaders of the congregation were guilty of the murder?
The Talmud explains that, of course, the elders didn’t literally kill anyone, but they are potentially at fault, nonetheless. Perhaps they allowed the individual to pass through without being offered adequate hospitality, or perhaps he was not properly accompanied as he began his journey out of the city.
On a simple level, it can be understood that without necessary nourishment and hospitality, the victim was weak and hungry and unable to fight off his attacker, or perhaps he was forced to steal for food and was killed in the act. And maybe not being accompanied caused him to get lost and wander into dangerous areas.
The commentaries explain the lack of hospitality as a cause of murder from a deeper perspective, as well. If a tired and weary individual enters a city and is not offered even basic hospitality, this can have the emotionally draining effect of making him feel depressed and alone, less than human, and thereby vulnerable to the dangers of the road. Furthermore, even if none of this was actually the cause of his death, a town that doesn’t offer hospitality is guilty of the root cause of murder – a callousness with regard to the dignity of life, and a neglect of their responsibility towards their fellow human beings.
The elders proclaim that they were not aware of a guest in their town; if they had been, they would have taken care of his needs properly. Yet, even after this proclamation they must beg for forgiveness. If their city does not offer proper hospitality, they have failed in their obligation to communicate the sanctity of every soul.
Although the simple reading of the Talmud is that they have failed in their responsibility towards the victim, it can possibly be understood also from the perspective of the murderer. Possibly the elders are asking for forgiveness for the reality that a murderer resided in or passed through their city. They are proclaiming that there should never be a reason for anyone in their midst to despair to the extent that they turn to a life of crime. Of course, this does not excuse the murderer – if he were found, he would be punished for his crime. But the leaders of the town bear a degree of responsibility for the fact that anyone in their vicinity could sink to such a level of depravity.
The procedure described in the Torah describes is no longer practiced today. It was only done in the land of Israel, a land whose innate holiness was unable able to tolerate murder. But the lesson is timeless and timely.
From the very beginning of human history, man has cried out to G-d, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Our Torah portion unequivocally expresses G-d’s response – a resounding YES! It is our job to integrate that message into the lives that we live and the societies that we build.
In honor of Daniel Belote, an exceptional young man who is celebrating his Bar Mitzvah with the Monmouth Torah Links Community this Shabbos. May he continue to personify the transcendent values of our holy Torah and bring much nachas to his wonderful family, our community, and the entire Jewish people.