One of the joys of Jewish life in the Land of Israel is the way ancient texts can be used in ordinary moments of daily life. A rabbinic colleague tells the story of a Jerusalem traffic jam: traffic had come to a complete halt, and drivers were leaning on their horns in frustration. The taxi driver (who was driving my colleague) finally stepped out of his car and reprimanded the driver behind him, with a full, verbatim quote of Exodus 14:15, in its original Hebrew:
"Why are you yelling at me? Speak to the people of Israel and tell them to move!" (The translation here is meant to reflect the use of the text.) Never mind that in the original context it is God speaking to Moses at the Sea of Reeds.
At another moment of Israel's story—a moment neither joyous nor quotidian—members of Israel's judiciary community brought a different Torah text to bear on Israeli society. It was 1982. Israel was in control of southern Lebanon when Lebanese Christian Phalangists attacked the predominately Muslim refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, and many were killed. Huge protests in Israel against the killings forced the government to take action, resulting in its convening a commission to assess the responsibility of the Israeli government and army. The Kahan Commission,1 established by the Israeli government, was chaired by Yitzhak Kahan, president of Israel's Supreme Court. It concluded that the Gemayel Phalangists bore direct responsibility for the massacres in the refugee camps, and that Israel was to be held indirectly responsible. It is to this second charge, that of indirect responsibility, that we turn our attention.
The Kahan Commission used as the basis of its argument an esoteric text from this week's parashah:
"If, in the land that the Eternal your God is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke, and the elders of the town shall bring the heifer down to an everflowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer's neck. The priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward; for the Eternal your God has chosen them for divine service and to pronounce a blessing in the name of the Eternal, and every lawsuit and case of assault is subject to their ruling. Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. And they shall make this declaration: 'Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, Eternal One, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.' And they will be absolved of bloodguilt. Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the Eternal" (Deuteronomy 21:1–9).
Why must the elders and magistrates of the town nearest to the corpse go through this strange ritual and ask for absolution? Because they are presumed guilty. They bear indirect responsibility for the murder, because it occurred under their jurisdiction, on their watch, in their territory. Quoting directly from the Kahan Commission2:
"A basis for such responsibility may be found in the outlook of our ancestors, which was expressed in things that were said about the moral significance of the biblical portion concerning the 'beheaded heifer' (in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 21). It is said in Deuteronomy (21:6-7) that the elders of the city who were near the slain victim who has been found (and it is not known who struck him down) 'will wash their hands over the beheaded heifer in the valley and reply: our hands did not shed this blood and our eyes did not see.' Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says of this verse (Babylonian Talmud, Sota 38b):
"The necessity for the heifer whose neck is to be broken only arises on account of the niggardliness of spirit, as it is said, 'Our hands have not shed this blood.' But can it enter our minds that the elders of a Court of Justice are shedders of blood! The meaning is, [the man found dead] did not come to us for help and we dismissed him, we did not see him and let him go—i.e., he did not come to us for help and we dismissed him without supplying him with food, we did not see him and let him go without escort.'. . . . When we are dealing with the issue of indirect responsibility, it should also not be forgotten that the Jews in various lands of exile, and also in the Land of Israel when it was under foreign rule, suffered greatly from pogroms perpetrated by various hooligans; and the danger of disturbances against Jews in various lands, it seems evident, has not yet passed. The Jewish public's stand has always been that the responsibility for such deeds falls not only on those who rioted and committed the atrocities, but also on those who were responsible for safety and public order, who could have prevented the disturbances and did not fulfill their obligations in this respect."
The Kahan Commission honored the Torah, breathed new life into ancient text, and held the Israeli government to moral standards that its citizens expected: a brilliant—and all too rare—moment.
The Kahan Commission on the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, Prime Minister's Office, Israel State Archives
Rabbi Shira Milgrom is a rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami and is part of a unique rabbinic partnership of two co-senior rabbis in White Plains, New York. She is the author of articles about Jewish spirituality, education, healing, and women in Judaism and is the editor of a unique siddur used now for two decades in settings across the continent. She is blessed to learn continually about loving from her husband, children, and grandchildren.
The breaking of a heifer's neck in an ever-flowing wadi, followed by the priests' pronouncing a blessing of the Eternal God, and the elders washing their hands over the heifer and making a declaration is not the only bizarre ritual in Jewish tradition that absolves us. Here in our Torah portion, Rabbi Shira Milgrom points to this strange ritual used to remove the bloodguilt from those who find a person slain close to the borders of their town. The word we find in Hebrew for "absolve" is kapeir (Deuteronomy 21:8), similar to kippur, as in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. These words share the same root, kaf-pei-reish, as does another bizarre Yom Kippur ritual known as kapparot, which serves to absolve one of one's sins. Kapparot first appears in the writings of Jewish texts in the 9th century (see Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 10 [Jerusalem: Keter Publishing, 1996] pp. 756–57).
Traditionally, on the day before Yom Kippur, one takes a chicken—or a fish or bag of coins if no animal is available—and waves it around one's head three times while reciting a prayer. This act symbolically transfers the misdeeds from the individual to the animal swinging overhead. After the chicken is ritually slaughtered, it is then customary to redeem the bird for money and donate the money (or the chicken or coins) to the poor.
While this may or may not be a ritual that we choose to adopt—even if only with coins—the message of kapparot is relevant to us today. As we begin Elul this week, the Hebrew month that leads up to the High Holidays, let us become aware of the atonement we each need to make and the misdeeds from which we need to be absolved. We need to ask forgiveness of others, and then make every effort to change our actions in the future.
Rabbi Amy L. Memis-Foler is the rabbi at Temple Judea Mizpa in Skokie, Illinois.
Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,456–1,477; Revised Edition, pp. 1,292–1,315;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,141–1,164