The final verses of Parashat Shoftim discuss the egla arufa ritual which would be performed when a murder victim was discovered outside a city, and the killer was not found. Among the more starting, and seemingly peculiar, sources relevant to the law of egla arufa is a comment of Targum Yonatan ben Uziel (21:8) describing what would happen subsequent to this ritual. Targum Yonatan writes that after the town’s leaders fulfilled their egla arufa obligations, which include the killing of a calf for atonement, a swarm of worms would emerge from the mouth of the carcass, and the worms would crawl from the site of the egla arufa until the home of the murderer, thereby miraculously solving the crime and identifying the criminal.
How might we explain this strange description?
Targum Yonatan’s comments perhaps provide a source for the controversial position of the Rambam, in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:40), in explaining the reason and purpose of the egla arufa ceremony. The Rambam writes, quite simply, that the mitzva is intended to help find the killer so he could be brought to justice. The entire procedure, starting with the measurements made to determine the closest town to the scene of the crime, which was performed by the nation’s leading sages (Rashi to 21:2, based on the Gemara), would, invariably, create a stir. It would cause people to start talking about the crime, thereby spreading awareness and generating discussion. This “buzz” would, in turn, generate interest in the case and trigger a flow of information which would help the authorities solve the mystery and find the killer. (The Ramban, in his commentary here in Parashat Shoftim, takes issue with the Rambam’s explanation. See Professor Nechama Leibowitz’s comprehensive discussion in her Studies in Devarim, pp. 201-208.)
Quite possibly, the Midrashic tradition that appears in Targum Yonatan graphically expresses this process. The image of the calf’s mouth spewing forth insects that lead to the killer’s home allegorically represents the desired result of the egla arufa ceremony – conversation and the spread of awareness, which will, gradually, lead to the uncovering of the murderer’s identity.
The question, however, remains, why did Targum Yonatan use such a repulsive image – worms crawling from a carcass – to illustrate this effect of the egla arufa ceremony? Why is the process of the spread of information and awareness depicted in such grotesque terms?
The answer, perhaps, is that indeed, talking about such matters is unpleasant and grotesque. We would much prefer keeping the public discourse free of ugly elements, and to speak only of pure, happy, uplifting and inspirational topics. Our natural tendency is to keep the “mouth” of the “carcass” closed, to remain silent about the disturbing events taking place in our communities and among the Jewish People. Chazal recognized that these topics are like vermin, something we instinctively detest and seek to avoid. They teach us, however, that we must, for our own good, have the “worms” flow forth, and encourage respectful and productive conversation about the distressing problems that we face and how to best confront them. The only way we will discover the “killer,” and succeed in eliminating crime and impropriety from our midst, is by having the uncomfortable conversations – in a respectful, dignified manner – in order to spread awareness and information.