A corpse. A corpse on Union Street, New Orleans.
It is seventeen 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, and the National Guard knew, 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 struck me was that the story ran just two days before we read this week’s Torah portion, Shofetim:
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 the leaders of the community performed. All the details of the process are recounted 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 also explain the lack of hospitality as a cause of murder from a deeper perspective. Suppose a tired and weary individual enters a city and is not offered basic hospitality. In that case, 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 concerning the dignity of life and neglect of their responsibility towards their fellow human beings.
The elders proclaim that they were unaware 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. Perhaps the elders ask 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 town leaders bear a degree of responsibility 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 could not 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 our lives and the societies we build.
Rabbi Yitzchok Oratz is the Rabbi and Director of the Monmouth Torah Links community. Shortly after receiving his semicha (rabbinic ordination) from Bais Medrash Govoha, the famed Lakewood Yeshiva, Rabbi Oratz, along with his wife Toby and family, moved to Marlboro, NJ where they co-founded the MTL community in 2001. Aside for his “Devar on the Par” that he writes for MTL, his writings have also been published on Aish, Times of Israel, Seforim Blog, Hakira, and in various Rabbinic journals. Rabbi Oratz looks forward to continuing teaching Torah in a way that is timely and timeless, and sharing meaningful Jewish experiences with the amazing MTL community.