Shoftim 5769

Posted on March 23, 2011

by Judah Kerbel

August 22, 2009/2 Elul 5769

“Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?
Chaim Yankel stole the cookie from the cookie jar!
‘Who me?’
Yes you!
‘Couldn’t be!’
Then who??”

Remember that “cookie jar” game/rhyme? In this game, people sitting in a circle accuse someone of stealing the cookies from the cookie jar. Ultimately, though, none of the accused are the culprits, and the culprit remains unidentified. (Of course it’s all hypothetical anyway).

I began with that rhyme because it was my first association with the subject of the end of our parasha. This section discusses the protocol for when life (not quite as petty as cookies) is stolen and the evidence of murder is present, but a murderer is unknown. Elders and magistrates throughout the region measure the distance from the corpse to the nearby towns, and the elders of the nearest town, in a curious ceremony likened in nature to that of Azazel, bring a heifer (though the Hebrew word is different from the description of the “red heifer” in Hukkat), break its neck and wash their hands over it.

“And they should answer and say ‘our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see. Atone your nation Israel that you redeemed, and do not let innocent blood go unaccounted for among your nation Israel’.” (Deuteronomy 21:7-8).

In the just society that the Torah tries to create, it is a serious thing for a murder to go unaccounted, and the entire Israelite community must bear responsibility for the crime. Of course, the community has no wishes to condone murder and will do all it can to disassociate itself from capital crime, hence the elders declare the oath above. This is essentially how the Talmud interprets the oath; the Midrash digs deeper under the surface, understanding that the oath to mean that a community swears that nobody is so poor and helpless that they are motivated to commit crime (see Etz Hayim, p. 1105).

We are now entering Elul, the last month on the Jewish calendar, the beginning of the season of repentance. It is during this period that we ask God and our peers for forgiveness and to absolve us of the things we didn’t do exactly right this year. Additionally, in the Yom Kippur confessionals, we confess in the 1st person plural – for the sin which we committed – as we bear communal responsibility for the sins of our entire Jewish community, as evident in the statute I just discussed. As we do our Elul t’shuva, let’s work towards not only personal repentance, but towards global repentance, towards a repaired world in which we have no need for such rites.