We are deep in this season of preparation for the high holy days, logistically and spiritually. Some of us are preparing to send children back to school, or go back to school ourselves, and the timing of the Jewish new year coming in the fall is such a help with that transition.
This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, has some of the greatest hits. “Tzedek tzedek tirdof”: Justice, justice, you shall pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20) “ki ha’adam ish hasedeh,” “because man is the tree of the field,” (Deuteronomy 20:19), the establishment of cities of refuge (Deuteronomy 19:2). There is more than lifetimes enough of what to study in our Torah to nourish us.
This year, so deep in thinking about Hinenu’s first High Holy Day season of services together, I’m not thinking about any of those greatest hits. I’m thinking about what our parsha asks us to consider in this season of accountability about washing our hands of responsibility.
Described in depth in chapter 21, after all the encouragement to establish working, just systems of governance and responsibility, we come upon this situation:
כי־ימצא חלל באדמה אשר יהוה אלהיך נתן לך לרשתה נפל בשדה לא נודע מי הכהו
If, in the land that the LORD your God is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known… (Deut. 21:1)
So it goes like this: a dead body is found in the land between towns, on the outskirts. This person has been forgotten, missing, quite literally the most vulnerable a being can be. They are found, finally, and the leaders need to figure out who is responsible for them. Who has to deal with the burial, who is going to prosecute to find out how they died, who is going to take on the hassle. The Torah describes a process in which we must measure to find the town closest to where the person was found, and a pure, unworked animal (perfect for an offering) is led down to a moving body of water that has similarly never been worked. There the animal is killed, and the priests lead the elders in a process of formulaic declaration while they literally wash their hands of the responsibility.
וענו ואמרו ידינו לא שפכה [שפכו] את־הדם הזה ועינינו לא ראו
And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.
כפר לעמך ישראל אשר־פדית יהוה ואל־תתן דם נקי בקרב עמך ישראל ונכפר להם הדם
Absolve, O LORD, 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.
At first blush, this Torah text can read as overly compassionate to the nearby town that is arguably pretty responsible for the death of an unknown, unclaimed person. But think again--our Torah takes a full chapter to explain what we do in a situation like this. A situation that might happen, that DOES happen, every month, every week, and can go by ignored. No, instead, our Torah describes an elaborate ritual where the elders of the nearest town are compelled to sacrifice a perfect unblemished animal reserved for their personal and communal ritual practice, sacrifice it to God seeking absolution.
This is not washing our hands of responsibility, this is trying to embody accountability, and the desire for absolution. This is a reaching ritual--we are not this way now, but may our prayers be accepted, may we be forgiven, may we forgive each other.
Ibn Ezra, 12th century Spanish commentator, explains the reason the elders have to ask God to כפר the nation: “for we were negligent, and we did not guard the dangerous highways.” Ibn Ezra sees these elders not going through the civic responsibilities to absolve the town of any bad reputation. He sees this as a ritual claiming accountability for what the city did to not protect its borders, highways, and accompany the most vulnerable on the way.
How do we ask for forgiveness when the things we are accountable for are still ongoing? How can we find comfort and connection in services together while the world is full of suffering? How dare we declare a new year, a day of rest, a beloved community, when there is so much brokenness?
I am inspired by the message from the ritual described in Devarim 21. Instead of letting moments of grief and guilt go by, swept under the rug, we are challenged to mark, lift up, look at and investigate from every angle how and why what happened could have happened. Instead of leaving the dead unattended, unaccompanied, unnoticed, we care not only for their bodies, but for the circumstances that led us to this moment. Through ritual, we hold ourselves accountable, and more importantly, through ritual we commit to doing better, find forgiveness, so we can move toward the selves we wish to become.
May this season of teshuva, returning, be one where you treat yourself with compassion, to find your mistakes, be accountable to them, and allow them to be forgiven.