The Riddle of the Egla

This is the first of a series of short thoughts I hope, with Hashem’s help, to offer pretty much weekly about the parshas hashavua or yamim tovim, in the hope that they might be deemed worthy of discussion at Shabbos or Yomtov tables

On a superficial level, there is something disturbing about the ritual of egla arufah, which will be read from the Torah this Shabbos, parshas Shoftim.

The ritual, is commanded in a case where the body of a murder victim, presumably a wayfarer, is found between cities. The procedure, which involves the elders of the nearest city dispatching a calf, is called a kapparah, an atonement, yet there seems to be no sin for which the elders need atone. That’s because part of the ritual is their sincere declaration that they did everything they could to ensure the safety of the visitor during his visit, including supplying him with his needs before he left. 

And it certainly isn’t atonement for the killer; if he is ever discovered, he faces a murder charge and its penalty.

So whom is the atonement for?

It seems clear to me that it is for Klal Yisrael.

Rav Dessler, in Michtav Me’Eliyohu, teaches that the concept of arvus, the “interdependence of all Jews” implies that when a Jew does something good, it reflects the entire Jewish people’s goodness. And the converse, too. 

Thus, when Achan, one man, misappropriated spoils after the first battle of Yehoshua’s conquest of Canaan, the siege of Yericho, it is described as the sin of the entire people (Yehoshua, 7:1). Explains Rav Dessler: Had the people as a whole been sufficiently sensitive to Hashem’s commandment to shun the city’s spoils, Achan would never have been able to commit his sin.

So it may be that in the case of the murdered wayfarer, too, even if no particular person was directly responsible for the murder, what could have enabled so terrible an act to happen might have been a “critical mass” of lesser offenses, perhaps things that Chazal likened to murder, such as causing another Jew great embarrassment or indirectly causing a person’s life to be shortened.

In which case, the atonement would be for Klal Yisrael as a whole, interconnected as all its members are.

The idea, in truth, inheres in the very words to be recited by the elders.  After they declare their lack of any personal involvement in the murder, they plead with Hashem to “atone for your people Yisrael…”  

And the Baal HaTurim’s comment on that phrase makes the idea explicit: “From here we see,” he writes, “that all members of Klal Yisrael are interdependent.”

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