It was the happiest of times, it was the unhappiest of times. It was Simchat Torah, the happiest day of the year, and the only day of the year when two joyous Jewish holidays are celebrated simultaneously in Israel, and it was a surprise attack when the enemy went into people’s homes personally, house to house, in multiple communities simultaneously and systematically, for the first time in the history of the modern country of Israel—let alone most civilized countries—not just relying on impersonal missiles. So it was also the worst of times at the same time.
What can one say at a time like this? What can one write? Perhaps the best answer has already been written, and has already been studied. In fact, perhaps the best response appears in the Daf Yomi studied on the day after the holiday ended throughout the world (except in Israel, where it ended a day earlier, of course), page 57 in the Tractate of Kiddushin. It is on this page in the Talmud that mention is made of the egla arufah, the heifer whose life is shattered no less than the lives of so many Jews on the recent holiday of joy and attempted joy.
One need not be a biblical scholar to know about the egla arufah (Devarim 21:1-9), its symbolism and its lessons. Without going into details, the eglah arufah is a mystical ceremony performed when a murdered stranger would be found in a field in Israel, and the perpetrator of the crime would be unknown. The corpse was then to be buried in place and a ceremony was to be performed with a heifer, after which the elders of the nearest city would declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did we see this with our eyes.” This has been interpreted to mean they did not knowingly let this murdered traveler leave their city without provisions and accompaniment. The ceremony is a form of atonement, including a request to God “not to place innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel.”
Oh the contrast! Not only may Jews not spill innocent blood, but they must take responsibility even for being most indirectly responsible for the spilling of innocent blood, for not having provided for, escorted, and thereby protected passing strangers!
A question was raised as to the link between feeding and then escorting a passing traveler, reducing the chances of his being ambushed and killed. One answer is that when a traveler is ignored, his self-esteem may suffer, and his resistance may be lowered—emotionally, physically and literally—so he wouldn’t be as likely to defend himself wholeheartedly against an aggressor. By contrast, if a traveler is treated graciously, he is more likely to have a stronger sense of self-esteem and to have the mindset that his life is worth fighting for, and he will put up a good fight.
Similarly, although the Israelis certainly don’t need more motivation, when Israeli civilians and soldiers receive enthusiastic emotional, economic and political support from the national and international communities, it strengthens their will and ability to defend themselves, to fight and to persevere effectively to the full extent of their potential, with the help of God, of course.
Unfortunately, there is no need to describe here the despicable nature of the instigators of the present war. Similarly to the scenario described in the biblical discussion of the eglah arufah, the intelligence of the Israeli government and army failed to prevent murders.
Nevertheless, in line with the lessons of the ceremony of the eglah arufah, the Israelis continue to demonstrate not merely their sensitivity to human life—even the life of their enemies—warning civilians to leave military targets, thereby giving up the important element of surprise, to save lives. Contrast this to the approach of the enemy which misused the element of surprise in order to be better positioned to torture, murder and kidnap innocent civilians. The Israelis have likewise demonstrated their dedication to eliminating future potential murderers and tracking down enemies and rescuing (or bartering for the release of) captives so that they will not be murdered. Oh, the contrast!
The whole procedure of the egla arufah is divinely designed to prevent people from becoming injured to death. The Torah takes pains to mandate the treatment of each death with meticulous accounting, so to speak. This takes on added contemporary relevance in light of the atrocities perpetrated against Israelis beginning this past Simchat Torah. The approach articulated in the Torah is designed to prevent or at least reduce the incidences of murder as well as the widespread post-traumatic stress disorder that inevitably sets in after exposure to human horror and its associated carnage.
Citing the baalei musar (proponents of the moralistic movement), Rabbi Shalom Rosner noted the question as to why the discussion of the egla arufah appears in the Bible near discussions of war. A compelling answer that is given is that when soldiers find themselves surrounded by dead people, they often tend to devalue human life. We have seen this devaluation by the enemy most graphically and grotesquely in recent days, and the valuation by the Israelis seeking to rescue the hostages. Again, oh, the contrast!
We can only hope and pray—and spread the word—so that more people will learn about and appreciate the sensitivity of the Bible and the Jewish people to human life, will encourage more Arabs to focus upon and follow this message of the Bible, and will help the Israeli soldiers, politicians and civilians to reduce and prevent future casualties of all innocent people.
Rabbi Reichel, a New York attorney and author, writes from time to time on the impact and potential impact of passages in a timely page in the daf yomi on current events.