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What Do We Owe To Each Other?

August 31, 2021

This week’s d’var Torah on parashat Shoftim and communal responsibility.

Sometimes, a piece of text seems outdated and irrelevant, until you’re ready to understand it in a new way. That’s how I feel about this week’s parasha, Shoftim, which outlines the procedure that Israelite communities should follow if someone finds a dead body nearby, and the killer cannot be identified and held accountable. The Torah is concerned with the spiritual purity of the Promised Land, which might be tainted by an unavenged murder.

The Torah tells us that if “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 that town shall bring the heifer down to an everflowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown.”

Once they have arrived in the wadi, the heifer’s neck is broken, in the presence of the priests, the town elders wash their hands and make the following declaration:

 “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. (8) Absolve, O Eternal, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.”

The rabbis are somewhat shocked that the elders would have to participate in such a ritual, saying, “But did it enter our minds that the Elders of the court are spillers of blood, that they must make such a declaration? Rather, they mean to declare that the victim did not come to us and then we let them take their leave without food, and we did not see them and then leave them alone to depart without accompaniment. They therefore attest that they took care of all their needs and are not responsible for their death even indirectly” (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 45b).

Although this ritual might be understood as a denial of responsibility, we could also understand it as an acknowledgement of how the community is responsible for danger that befalls an individual. The rabbis are saying: the elders may not have known this person, and they certainly did not actively or purposefully kill them. But had the elders ignored this person when they were in danger, or in need, they would still be responsible for this death. This text reminds us, in a roundabout way, of what we owe to each other.

The idea of communal responsibility figures greatly into the liturgy of the upcoming High Holy Days.

The first synagogue I served as a rabbi, Judea Reform Congregation, was a pilot congregation for Mishkan HaNefesh. We held a mock High Holy Day service in March, so that we could test-drive the new liturgy and offer feedback.

One of the most jarring changes to the liturgy we noticed was when we recited the short confession. While the Hebrew was the same, the English translation had shifted from the more abstract, “Some of us kept grudges, were lustful, malicious or narrow-minded,”  (Gates of Repentance p. 269), to the harsher, more specific “We corrupt. We commit crimes. .. We are immoral. We kill” (Mishkan HaNefesh Kol Nidre draft p. 45a). Some worshippers were actually offended by the direct accusation of crimes they did not commit.

“Why does it say, ‘We kill,’” one worshipper said. “I don’t kill!”

This, I would hope, would resonate with most of us as we recite the group confessional. Why should we say, “We kill,” if we don’t kill?

One reason we might confess in the first person plural is that we are providing cover for all those who do need to confess to one of the greater sins. But we also confess as a community is that we are taking responsibility for all of the wrongdoing the community might have done as a whole.

“Why do we say, ‘We have sinned,’ rather than, ‘have sinned’? Why are we confessing to wrongs we may have not personally committed? The 16th century mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria teaches that the people of Israel may be likened to a body of which every Jew is a living part. The vitality of the whole depends upon the health of every organ and limb. That is how deeply Jews are connected to one another. Therefore, each individual sin inflicts damage on the whole organism, and all of us share responsibility for healing the body of Israel” (Mishkan HaNefesh, Yom Kippur, p. 83).

If there is anything we have learned this year, it is not only that we are deeply connected to each other as Jews, but also how deeply intertwined our lives are as human beings. This time of year, especially, we take time to recognize that our actions have consequences. And this year, we can no longer pretend that the action, or inaction, of one person only has consequences for that individual.

When I came back from camp this week and started making preparations for the High Holy Days, I found that I was both sad and angry as we entered the month of Elul. I’m used to many different emotions swirling around during this time period—mostly panic and anxiety—but anger and sadness were new.

It wasn’t that camp hadn’t been amazing. I was floored by what our campers and staff at the Creative Arts Academy were able to create over the course of two weeks, especially while observing strict COVID-protocols.

But watching our young people get ready to leave our safe “bubble” to return to the perils of their various schools, and talking to my fellow faculty about how High Holy Days will be impacted by the spread of COVID-19 again, I became more and more upset. Because our children shouldn’t still have to be doing this. And neither should we.

The way I see it, this year’s greatest sins were not committed by an individual, but by many individuals and institutions who failed to recognize that they were part of an interconnected whole.

Yes, there were and will continue to be individuals who see their response to COVID-19 as a personal choice, not considering how their decisions might impact those around them. If masking and social distancing is inconvenient to them, they won’t do it, and that’s their right.

But no one pulled that stance out of thin air. Government officials have downplayed the threat of COVID and politicized these simple precautions from the outset. Now they are inflicting their personal stances on our children by refusing to take appropriate measures to protect the students in our schools and taking concerned school districts to court.

There were also media conglomerates that either actively spread misinformation or did nothing to stop the spread of it on their platforms, such that information about the COVID vaccine is now shrouded in ridiculous conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile, billionaires made profits off the desperation of consumers, mistreatment of workers, and avoidance of taxes, then used those profits to jet themselves into space for 30 seconds.

So yes, I’m angry. Because so many of us have forgotten that we are all responsible for one another. Like the elders breaking the heifer’s neck, so many have washed their hands of the matter, saying that the safety of others is not our responsibility. But we must instead be guided by Rabbi Luria’s idea that we are all limbs of the same body, and that when the body falls ill, we all share responsibility for its healing.

A more well-known passage in this week’s Torah portion is the verse tzedek, tzedek, tirdof, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Justice Annabelle Imber Tuck writes that, when we read these two passages together, we are reminded that, “Every member of the community…has an obligation to pursue justice in their own interactions with others….Shof’tim contemplates a community where social justice prevails. No person stands above any other person… No member of the community should be indifferent to the powerless or the poor” (The Mussar Torah Commentary, p. 303-304).

As we face the tough questions and difficult decisions the beginning of this new year will bring, let us continue to work towards our vision of a world where no member of the community remains indifferent to the well-being of that community, where we all hold ourselves responsible for one another, and where everyone remembers that that we are all part of a whole.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz