וענו ואמרו: ידינו לא שפכו את הדם הזה ועינינו לא ראו. כפר לעמך ישראל אשר פדית ה’, ואל תתן דם נקי בקרב עמך ישראל, ונכפר להם הדם
(דברים כא, ז-ח)
A man is found dead out in the countryside and the murderer is unknown. The elders of the city nearest to the corpse take a heifer down to the valley and break its neck. They wash their hands over the slain heifer, and proclaim they had nothing do to with the murder.
This episode, known as the eglah arufah (slain heifer), has sparked numerous commentaries that sought to explain the meaning behind this strange ceremony. But not many of the commentators have picked upon a seemingly out-of-place verse in this passage.
The Torah says that the elders of the city take the heifer to the valley and break its neck (verse 4), then they wash their hands over it (verse 6). But in between (verse 5), the Torah says:
And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near, for them the Lord your God has chosen to minister unto Him, and to bless in the name of the Lord, and according to their word shall every controversy and every stroke be.
(Devarim 21, 5)
Then nothing more is said of the sons of Levi, the kohanim (the priests). They don’t seem to play any role in the ceremony, they just stand there. What is the meaning of this general description of the role of the kohanim and why is it inserted into the story of the slain heifer?
Furthermore, upon reading the words that the elders say after they wash their hands, another question arises:
And they shall speak and say: “our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Forgive, O Lord, Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, and suffer not innocent blood to remain in the midst of Your people Israel.” And the blood shall be forgiven them.
(Devarim 21, 7-8)
The first verse is understandable: the elders proclaim their innocence (and, by extension, that of their city). But if they are indeed innocent, why do they go on to ask for forgiveness in the second verse?
I saw an explanation by R. David Bigman that solves both questions. The last verse, the one that asks for forgiveness, is said not by the elders but by the priests. First, the elders say they are innocent. Then the kohanim pray to God for forgiveness to “Thy people Israel” for the murder. These are two reactions typical to such a situation. A rational response by the elders and the judges who have investigated the murder and reached a conclusion about the city’s innocence. And an existential response by the priests who are (as verse 5 explained) responsible for worshipping God and blessing the people in His name. The priests take responsibility for the murder on behalf of the entire nation. In face of a terrible tragedy like the murder of a human being, the kohanim instinctively feel what any person should feel, a sense of collective responsibility.
Today I heard a shi’ur by R. Tzvi Ezrachi, who talked about the sin of the Golden Calf. The Torah says that the people of Israel, after seeing the Golden Calf, cried out: “This is your God, O Israel, which brought you up out of Egypt”. Why do they “this is your God”, when in fact they should be saying “this is our God”? One commentator offered the following explanation: each and every person knew, down in his heart, that this deed of the Golden Calf is a terrible act against God, an act punishable by death. So instead of risking his own life by proclaiming that the Calf is the new God, he pointed to his fellow man and said “this is your God”. By doing this, he may have saved his own life, but he also displayed blatant disregard to the collective responsibility of caring for his fellow man. He forgot the important dictum “kol Israel arevim ze ba-ze” – all of Israel are responsible for another.
It is to stress the importance of this responsibility that the kohamim play a role in the ceremony of the eglah arufah. They are there to remind us all that even though we might be innocent, even though we might have done everything to save our own souls, we should also not forget our responsibility for the well-being of our brother and neighbour.
Such a feeling is befitting for these days, the month of Elul, as we approach the High Holidays. Rambam says in the laws of repentance (Hilchot Teshuvah, Ch. 3) that every man should see himself and the entire world as “half innocent and half guilty”. If he sins one more time, he tips the balance against himself and the entire world. If he does one more mitzvah, he tips the balance in favour of himself and the entire world. Rambam teaches us that each of us should feel that every action we take has an impact on the whole world. This is indeed “only” a feeling, not a reality, because we know that our actions cannot determine the fate of the world. But nevertheless we should adopt a view that this is indeed the case. This is exactly the view that is expressed by the kohanim when they pray to God for forgiveness on behalf of the entire nation.