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The Systems of the Jewish Year

The Decapitated Calf

By Rabbi Sender Haber

The Torah tells us (21-1) about a dead man who was found outside the city. The elders of the city and the kohanim need to go out to a valley and slaughter a calf and promise that they didn’t kill the man.

It seems a little bit unfair. Obviously, the village elders didn’t kill him. But the Sifri explains that the elders are saying that they saw to it that he left town with enough bread and water to keep him alive.’ And even so, they still need to beg for forgiveness.

But is that the elder’s responsibility for not giving him food? And why do they need to ask forgiveness when they did give food? Rav Yaacov Naiman, based on the Alter of Kelm explains that the issue here is emotional. By giving someone food, we are making sure that they feel important. That would have caused him to be more careful to avoid the type of danger that got them killed.

This isn’t about games. It isn’t about telling someone that he or she is important. This is about actually thinking that someone is important. And that is the responsibility of the elders. If they had respected every person to the point where all guests were naturally escorted out and cared for, then none of this tragedy would have happened.

Rav Leib Chasman makes a frightening point. The entire mitzvah here is only when we don’t know who the murdered is. If we do know, we don’t need to remind ourselves to care about people.

Shouldn’t it be the opposite?! One of us is a murderer. That should give us pause.

Rav Chasman writes that is exactly the point. Of course if one of us murdered, G-d forbid, we would all be rethinking our educational system and our way of life. We would all be making changes. But when there are no names attached – a stranger died, nobody knows who did it. It is so easy to shrug things off. That is where we need to go out of the city and conduct a whole ceremony to remind ourselves that this is our problem.

That is what we all need to do right now. Find something that totally isn’t our problem, and feel bad about it. Don’t make a person feel important. Teach yourself that the person truly is important.

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