SALT - Monday, 29 Av 5777 - August 21, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg
            Parashat Shoftim concludes with the command of egla arufa, the special ceremony that is required in the event of a murder victim that is found outside a city.  The leaders of the closest city to the scene of the murder were required to kill a young calf and declare their innocence, in order to earn atonement.  This section concludes, “And you shall eliminate the innocent blood from your midst when you do what is just in the eyes of the Lord” (21:9).
            Rashi, based on the Gemara in Masekhet Sota (47b), explains the phrase “And you shall eliminate the innocent blood from your midst” as a command to prosecute and punish the murderer if he is found after the egla arufa ritual.  Although the people earn atonement for the crime by conducting this ritual, it does not absolve them of the need to take strong action against the killer if and when he is identified and found.  Rashi adds that the Torah concludes this verse by saying, “when you do what is just in the eyes of the Lord” to emphasize that punishing the killer even after performing the egla arufa ceremony is the “just” thing to do.  Apparently, according to Rashi’s interpretation, one might have figured that finding and punishing the killer is unnecessary, and hence inappropriate, and so the Torah stresses that this is, in fact, the proper course of action.
            Ibn Ezra, however, explains this verse differently.  Invoking the famous rabbinic adage, “Sekhar mitzva mitzva” – the reward for a mitzva is another mitzva; meaning, one mitzva leads to another (Avot 4:2) – Ibn Ezra interprets the verse to mean that when we “do what is just in the eyes of the Lord” (“ki ta’aseh ha-yashar be-einei Hashem”), we will then succeed in “eliminating innocent blood from your midst.”  By acting properly in a general sense, we will be rewarded with the elimination of murder and violent crime.
            Rav Shmuel Betzalel commenting in his Be-fi Yesharim on Ibn Ezra’s interpretation of the verse, notes that the phrase “ki ta’aseh ha-yashar be-einei Hashem” most likely refers to decency in interpersonal relations.  A similar phrase appears earlier in Sefer Devarim (6:18), when the Torah famously commands, “Ve-asita ha-yashar ve-ha’tov be-einei Hashem,” a verse that has been explained as a reference to “li-fnim mi-shurat ha-din” – the requirement to extend beyond the strict letter of the law and forego what one can rightfully claim, for the sake of consideration to other people.  (See also the Ramban’s well-known comments on that verse.)  It emerges, then, that according to Ibn Ezra’s understanding of this verse, the Torah is telling us that by acting decently and sensitively towards other people, we “eliminate innocent blood” – we help prevent violent crime.  The kindness and consideration we each show one another in our ordinary, day-to-day affairs yields a ripple effect of sorts, helping to spread goodwill and sensitivity throughout our society, thus diminishing hatred and violence.  According to Ibn Ezra, then, the Torah here instructs that when a crime occurs, our response and quest for atonement must include redoubling our efforts to “do what is just in the eyes of the Lord,” to live with sensitivity and consideration to our fellowman.