January 18, 2020

Reviving the Biblical Ritual of Eglah Arufah

Modeled off of the eglah arufah ceremony, in February 2012, the Israeli Tzohar Association of Rabbis gathered to pray alongside the highway, on the spot where a female soldier was killed in a hit-and-run. The Torah’s case of the eglah arufah involves a corpse that is discovered between two settlements when no one knows who the murderer is. The priests and the elders of the nearest towns lead a unique ceremony and declare, “Our hands have not spilled this blood” (Deuteronomy 21:7). Due to the rampant abuse of immigrants and refugees, this ritual, in some fashion, must be revived today.


The 15th-century Portuguese Jewish philosopher Abravanel explains that the goal of the ritual is to jolt the residents from their normal routines to respond and take responsibility for the heinous crime that occurred. When murder occurs, life cannot go on as usual. Nechama Leibowitz describes: “responsibility for wrongdoing does not only lie with the perpetrator himself and even with the accessory. Lack of proper care and attention are also criminal. Whoever keeps to his own quiet corner and refuses to have anything to do with the ‘evil world’, who observes oppression and violence and does not stir a finger in protest cannot proclaim with a clear conscience that, ‘Our hands have not shed this blood’” (Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim, 207-208).


The Gemara says that the leaders are responsible, since they failed to provide this wanderer with food and escort (Sotah 38b). The16th-century Jewish thinker, the Maharal of Prague, explains that the poor wanderer was hungry and was killed while trying to steal food. Even though the victim died while committing an illegal act, the leaders who failed to feed him are responsible. Even though the town’s leaders did not do any direct harm, they are held responsible for the death.


Just as the wanderer who was commemorated through the eglah arufah broke the law, so too undocumented immigrants today, who are fleeing poverty and violence, break the law. Nevertheless, the leaders who turn a blind eye to their needs are responsible for their suffering. In the case in Deuteronomy, the individual was guilty of theft, a sin condemned very strongly by Jewish law on a Biblical level. Rav Ahron Soloveichik writes: “We assume that the person was starving and attempted an armed robbery in order to obtain food” (Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind, 175). This is all the more true with someone crossing international borders without documentation which is not an act condemned by Jewish law, and although we are bound by the law of the land, there is no reason why we should take less responsibility than in the case of the eglah arufah.


The idea that leaders are accountable for their generation is prevalent in Jewish thought. “As long as one is but an ordinary scholar, one has no concern with the congregation and is not punished [for its lapses], but as soon as one is appointed head and dons the cloak [of leadership], one must no longer say: ‘I live for my own benefit, I care not about the congregation,’ but the whole burden of the community is on one’s shoulders. If one sees a person causing suffering to another, or transgressing, and does not prevent them, then one is held punishable” (Shemot Rabba 27:9).


Once we accept the role of moral leadership, we are truly accountable for our community. But the Rabbis teach us that societal accountability is not granted solely to those who have been granted formal authority, but to all those of learning. “If a person of learning participates in public affairs and serves as judge or arbiter, they give stability to the land…But if they sit in their home and say to themselves, ‘What have the affairs of society to do with me? …Why should I trouble myself with the people’s voices of protest? Let my soul dwell in peace!’—if one does this, they overthrow the world” (Midrash Tanhuma, Mishpatim 2). Responsibility does not just apply to the scholar. The Rabbis confirm that this responsibility is upon all of us. “Everyone who can protest the sin of their household and does not, is responsible for the people of their household; for the people of their city, they are responsible for the people of their city; for the whole world, they are responsible for the whole world” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b). There are many different ways to take responsibility and to fulfill the commandment, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor!” (Leviticus 19:16). The world continues to exist because humans are responsible agents. When we give up our ability to hear the voices of protest and the cry of the sufferer, we bring the world to ruin.


In modern times, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explained it well in his 1971 “A Prayer for Peace”: “O Lord, we confess our sins; we are ashamed of the inadequacy of our anguish, of how faint and slight is our mercy. We are a generation that has lost its capacity for outrage. We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.” We are not culpable for the deaths and the abuses of the immigrants in our country, but we are certainly responsible to change the situation.


The mitzvah of eglah arufah today must go beyond leviyat orchim (a few symbolic courtesy steps to walk our guests out from our homes). Most of us cannot relate to the fear that undocumented workers feel in America today. We have undocumented residents dying alongside the Mexican border, dying while detained brutally by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and waiting in vain for adequate healthcare. More than 200 individuals die each year trying to cross the Mexico-United States border, and many of the survivors are sexually assaulted or abused on the way. The blood of these gerim (strangers) within our midst may be on all our hands.


It is time to revive this ancient ritual. We are to remember one of our most sacred duties as Jews: to foster a culture of collective responsibility. In the spirit of the elders of the community who would “speak up and say: ‘Our hands have not spilled this blood,’” we should work to ensure that undocumented immigrants and refugees are treated fairly in our communities, restaurants and neighborhoods. Now is the time for the American Jewish community to speak up, and address the plight of vulnerable, at-risk strangers in our midst. Then, even if others are complicit in the neglect and marginalization of undocumented immigrants, we will at least be able to say, “Our hands have not spilled this blood.”


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.