Justice Justice shall you pursue… (Deuteronomy 16:18)
If one is found slain… Lying in the field and it is not known who has slain him… The elders of the city nearest the slain man shall wash their hands and say our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it… (ibid 21:1, 7)
Moses in his final discourses to the Israelites instructs them to build a just and moral society in the Promised Land they are poised to enter. He challenges them with three words in the third verse of this week’s Torah portion: Tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice justice shall ye pursue.
If a man is found slain in the field and it is not known who has slain him, a just society assures the safety of all in its midst. Life matters even when the identity of the victim is unknown. To pursue justice is not solely justice for the residents of the community or for its privileged members, the pursuit of justice demands embracing the underprivileged, the stranger, the “other.” It’s an ongoing task requiring commitment, initiative and determination. Society is to be proactive in establishing and maintaining the highest standards of righteousness and integrity.
If an apparent victim of violence, is found in the field i.e. not within the boundaries of any community, it’s easy to dismiss it as another unsolved crime, but not so in this instance. Here all the elders of the city closest to where the body is found must gather at the nearest “mighty stream” with a one-year-old heifer and engage in a profound rite. They are to break its neck and then washing their hands in the brook proclaim their innocence by reciting, “Our hands not shed this blood.”
The Talmud notes it is inconceivable that the elders committed this crime. Why then this profession of innocence? This was to proclaim that this stranger did not enter their city only to be denied hospitality and departed without provisions and an escort to guide and protect him on his way. The elders speaking for their community were affirming that the stranger’s life was of consequence. Life matters. All life matters even that of the stranger. The pursuit of justice demands we be concerned about the welfare and safety of the outsider and “other.”
This ancient rite is rooted in the Biblical and Rabbinic teachings that the stance of “live and let live” it is contrary to the obligation to be proactive in the pursuit of justice. We are mandated to assume responsibility for the safety of others and that basic needs of food, shelter and security are assured to all.
This yesteryear’s rite unfolded at the banks of a raging stream, a metaphor developed at a later age by the prophet Amos who portrayed “justice welling up as water and justice as a mighty stream.” He framed an eternal challenge to nurture justice and to make it a powerful and ever living force in our communal and personal lives.
This ceremony of bygone days is no longer practiced, but like a mighty stream its message continues to flow focusing us on pursuing justice and affirming that life matters.
From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing.
Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar