As we noted yesterday, Moshe begins the poem of Ha’azinu by comparing his words to rain falling on a field: “Ya’arof ka-matar likchi…ki-rvivim alei eisev” (32:2).
The Sifrei presents several different explanations for this analogy, various different ways in which the words of Torah resemble rain. One explanation is that just as rain fertilizes the ground and produces many different species, similarly, Torah “produces” many different kinds of devout Jews. In the Sifrei’s words, “There are among them rabbis, there are among them upstanding people, there are among them scholars, there are among them righteous people, and there are among them pious people.” The Torah guides and uplifts all who study it, though not necessarily in the precisely same way. Its purpose is not for its students to all become one and the same, but rather for each individual to find his or her unique path to a meaningful, accomplished life following the Torah’s teachings and observing its laws.
Earlier, the Sifrei draws a puzzling association between this verse and the egla arufa – the special ceremony that was to be performed when a murder victim was discovered, and the killer’s identity was not known. The Sifrei notes the word “ya’arof” used by Moshe in describing how his words would “pour forth” like rain, a word which resembles the command, “ve-arefu” – that the city nearest the murder victim’s body must kill a calf as a means of achieving atonement (Devarim 21:4). On the basis of this association, the Sifrei comments, “Just as the calf atones for murder, so do words of Torah atone for murder.”
Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Yalkut Yehuda, comments that the Sifrei cannot possibly be understood to mean that a murderer earns atonement for his crime through the study of Torah. After all, the Sifrei’s teaching is based on an association between Torah study and egla arufa, and it is clear that the sacrificing of the calf does not atone for the killer; the Mishna (Sota 47a) states explicitly that if the killer is identified and caught after the egla arufa ceremony was conducted, then the killer must be prosecuted and punished. Undoubtedly, then, the Sifrei’s intent is that the community’s collective guilt for a murder that took place can be atoned through Torah study. The egla arufa, as the Mishna (Sota 45b) famously teaches, is brought by the town nearest the crime to atone for failing to the take the necessary precautions to prevent such crimes from taking place. The Sifrei thus teaches that in addition to the egla arufa, a society must react to criminal conduct through public Torah study – the model of which being Moshe’s public instruction of the poem of Ha’azinu – to infuse within the public proper ethical values and norms that will raise their conduct to a higher standard and prevent criminal and unethical activity.
We might add that the Rambam (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:40) explained the purpose of the egla arufa ceremony as intended to generate discussion about the crime in the hope that the killer’s identity will become known. The public event will, naturally, generate curiosity, and as the word spreads and the conservations take place, it is possible that information will surface that will lead to solving the mystery. (See Professor Nechama Leibowitz’s discussion of the Rambam’s comments in Studies in Devarim, pp. 201-208.) We might perhaps apply this explanation to the Sifrei’s association between egla arufa and Torah learning. The Sifrei here points to the importance of making Torah values and teachings part of the public conversation, much as the egla arufa ceremony was aimed at triggering conversation about the tragic crime that took place. The dissemination of Torah knowledge must be part of our response when we witness moral decline, doing what we can to introduce the Torah’s high demands and expectations into the public conversation so that they guide and elevate all of us, thus helping to eliminate improper conduct from our midst.