Parshat Shoftim, Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19
At the end of Parshat Shoftim the Torah teaches us the mitzvah of “Eglah Arufa.” This mitzvah is that if a man is found lifeless in the countryside and it is unknown how he died, the High Court in Yerushalayim must identify the town closest to the corpse. The town would have to bring an atonement, where the elders and leaders of the town would declare, “Our hands did not spill this blood.”
The basic question always asked is, who would ever think that the elders of the community would have committed a crime as egregious as murder?
In fact, our Parsha actually begins with the commandment to appoint judges and officers in every city and among each tribe. Since the beginning of our history as a nation and a people, leaders and judges have played a crucial role in maintaining our Jewish values, ethics and traditions.
Furthermore, a few of the warnings that the Torah issues our judges include “justice shall you pursue,” “do not accept a bribe” and “do not show favoritism to a litigant.” There are also warnings to a Jewish king not to hoard gold and silver and not to own private horses (aside from that which is needed for his chariot).
The Torah’s expectation for perfection from Jewish leaders is spelled out in our Parsha in no uncertain terms. A Jewish leader is expected to be a role model, for each and every Jew. Their ethics should be beyond reproach, and they should be seen as the absolute epitome of fairness and honesty.
So how can it be that at the end of this Parsha we assume the worst about these same leaders, placing the suspicion of homicide on them?
The Torah is an eternal book with life lessons for every generation and individual. What is the lesson we must take from this mitzvah? Certainly it is not to suspect every leader, for we are told in this week’s Torah portion that it is our obligation to listen to the leaders of each and every generation.
Rather, the Torah is teaching us what it means to be a leader.
Our sages explained that when the elders declared, “We did not spill this man’s blood,” they were actually affirming that they did not send this man on his way without the proper provisions for his journey. It is a value taught by our forefather Abraham that when one receives guests, not only must they provide him or her with lodging, food and drink, but they must also escort their guest on their way. While on a basic level the escort represents a matter of safety, on a deeper level it is an act that shows care not only for what the guest might lack, but for his or her future success. The guest is made to feel empowered on his or her way, confident in his or her steps, knowing that he or she is so important that the host has spent the extra few moments to escort them and impart the feeling of value and love.
This value is not only needed for our physical journey but also for the spiritual journey of our lifetime. It is the duty of elders, leaders and teachers to not only provide food and drink (representing spiritual nourishment) for the here and now, but rather also to provide the education and tools needed to flourish in the future.
Yet, a leader is expected to do more — he or she is expected to provide that future for each individual member of their family and community. Even one man or woman who may, G-d forbid, die — spiritually or physically — is ultimately the responsibility of a leader.
One might find this daunting, and therefore the Torah teaches us that our responsibility is to provide the tools and love. We must escort the children of the next generation and provide them with the unique provisions they need to survive the challenges to their traditions and Judaism that lie ahead. Show them how much you value them by walking those first steps with them, so that they may feel that special love for their entire life.
If we provide this escort, then we can always proudly declare, “My hands have not spilled this blood,” for our actions were those that suppressed assimilation and gave the individual the good that they had.
But leaders who only care about the now or only about the healthy or only about those who are similar to themselves and neglect to support our children and our Jewish day schools and the programs that guarantee a Jewish tomorrow are not true Jewish leaders even today.
We have been very fortunate in Pittsburgh to have a community with leaders always tending, caring and nurturing our children and institutions with an eye on the tomorrow. This week’s Parsha reminds us of the importance of their work and the need to strengthen the resolve and investment in a better Jewish tomorrow.
To our great leaders I say thank you and a Kesivah VaChasima Tova to all.
Rabbi Elchonon Friedman is spiritual leader of Bnai Emunoh Chabad, Greenfield. This column is provided by the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.