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Parashat Shoftim - 5776

Dear friends,

In this week's Parasha, Moses continues his instructions about the kind of society that the people of Israel will build upon entering the Promised Land. It is called Shoftim, Judges, based on the first verse in the Parasha. The Mitzvah is to appoint judges and officers in every city, so that justice can be administered.

A well- known verse in this week’s Parasha is:

"Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof" - "Justice, justice you shall pursue so that you can thrive and inherit the land that the L-rd your G-d is giving you." (Deuteronomy 16:20)

Much has been written about the repetition of the word 'Tzedek' - justice. A simple explanation is that even in the pursuit of justice, authorities have to use righteous ways.

The end of this Parasha, contains a very interesting ritual called the 'Egla Arufah'. Chapter 21 describes this situation. If the body of a murdered individual is found in an open field, and we don't who is the murderer, the elders of the town closest to where the body was found bring a young calf to a wadi, and there the young calf is killed. The elders wash their hands over the dead calf and they make the following declaration:

"'Our hands did not shed this blood and we did not see (who did it). Forgive, O L-rd, your people Israel, whom you redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Israel. And they will be absolved of bloodguilt.' And you shall remove from your midst guilt from the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the L-rd." (Deuteronomy 21:7-9)

Our sages explain that this ritual emphasizes the responsibility that the community must feel for the loss of an innocent life. In killing the young calf, they demonstrate to all that a person's life had been cut down, and we are all responsible in two ways: When they say our hands did not shed this blood, (a) they express true remorse for this unusual event in their midst, the murder of an innocent person - we must continue to look for the killer and bring him/her to justice. And, (b) we must feel responsibility for the kind of society that produced a murderer. The Talmud explains that this ritual ceased to exist when the number of murders increased and the ritual lost its effect on the people.

I cannot help but think of the events of the last few days with the story of Jacob Wetterling. Minnesotans can be proud of the 27 years of continuous search for young Jacob and for his abductor. The kidnapping and disappearance of such a young life shocked all of us and we never forgot him.

We have finally learned the truth. A monster of a man has been living among us. He continued to inflict pain on Jacob's family and community all those years. What kind of punishment can be given to such a monster? The electric chair? Life imprisonment? I don't believe there is a punishment that would fit such a heinous crime!

The ancient ritual in this week's Parasha would be meaningless in our society today. Are we shocked when a body is discovered on the street? There are so many murders (more than 90 this month in Chicago and quite a few in Minneapolis) that we have come to accept such horror as part of today's society. That is not the way of the Torah. We are all responsible for the society in which we live - especially the leaders among us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Avram