The Torah in Parashat Masei presents several laws relevant to murder – both accidental and intentional – and concludes its discussion by warning, “You shall not defile the land…in the midst of which I reside” (35:34). The Sifrei explains that bloodshed causes the divine presence to depart, adding that it was because of the sin of murder that the Temple was destroyed.
As an example of the kinds of murder that occurred during the times of the Beit Ha-mikdash, the Sifrei tells a story which also appears in the Gemara (Yoma 23a), of a murder that took place on the ramp leading to the altar. Two kohanim raced up the ramp vying to perform the service on the altar, and during the race, one took a knife and stabbed the other, killing him. Rabbi Tzadok then stood up and spoke to everybody present, bemoaning the tragedy that had just occurred. He noted the law of egla arufa, which requires the leaders of a city near the scene of murder to perform a special ceremony, including the sacrificing of a calf, to atone for the crime. Rabbi Tzadok cried, “For whom shall we bring a calf? For the city, or for the courtyards [of the Temple]?!” The Gemara clarifies that for several reasons, the law of egla arufa was not applicable in this case, and Rabbi Tzadok made this proclamation in order to arouse the people’s emotion.
What exactly did Rabbi Tzadok mean by this rhetorical question – “For whom shall we bring a calf? For the city [of Jerusalem], or for the courtyards [of the Temple]?!” – and how exactly did this arouse emotion? What difference would it have made if the city of Jerusalem was theoretically responsible to perform this atonement ceremony, or if the kohanim of the Beit Ha-mikdash bore this obligation?
One explanation, perhaps, is that Rabbi Tzadok lamented the “blame game” that he anticipated in the wake of this tragedy. From experience, Rabbi Tzadok figured that in all likelihood, the people would blame the kohanim for what happened, and the kohanim would blame the people. The “city,” the general population, would view this tragic incident as an example of the kohanim’s corruption and violence. They would place the blame squarely on the ministers of the Temple, and call for a shakeup of the way the Mikdash is run. The kohanim, on the other hand, would likely cast the blame on the people, claiming that the negative influence of society penetrated the Mikdash and caused the kohanim to act violently. The crime that was committed, the kohanim would claim, cannot be blamed on the priestly class, but rather on the “city,” on the moral decline of society at large.
This was the meaning of Rabbi Tzadok’s lament. Besides the tragedy of the loss of a human life, Rabbi Tzadok bemoaned the lack of accountability. Every group shrugged off responsibility and blame, and shifted it onto another. No group was willing to accept at least partial guilt and respond with introspection and soul-searching. Instead, everyone conveniently passed the blame onto somebody else.
Rabbi Tzadok’s lament, then, teaches us of the need to look at our own shortcomings and identify our own areas of deficiency, rather than look to find fault in others. It is very easy to point out the flaws in others and cast all the blame on them, but this is not, in the long run, all that helpful for anybody. Our duty and challenge is to see where we can improve and grow, and determine how we can correct our own faults, rather than casting the blame on others so we can enjoy a false and delusional sense of innocence and self-righteousness.
(See Rav Yaakov Moshe Lessin’s Ha-ma’or She-ba’Torah, vol. 2, p. 104)