Parshat Shoftim, as its name suggests, deals with matters related to judges and justice, law and order in the day-to-day workings of Jewish society. At the end of the parsha we read one of the strangest and most unique sections of the Torah: the commandment concerning the “egla arufa” – the “heifer that is beheaded”. In the case of an unsolved murder, the elders of the city closest to the place where the body is found assume a certain responsibility for this killing and they hold a special ceremony in which they ask forgiveness from God. In the words of the Torah: “They shall answer and say: ‘Our hands did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes see. Grant atonement to Your nation, Israel, whom You redeemed, O God, and do not place innocent blood amongst Your nation Israel, and let the blood be forgiven them.’ Thus shall you put away the innocent blood from your midst, when you do that which is right in God’s eyes.” (Devarim 21)
The Gemara records the Sages’ questioning as to the nature of the responsibility borne by the city’s elders – the leaders, the statesmen – for a murder that occurred outside of their city, where their only apparent connection to the scene is their physical proximity to the place where the body was found:
“Our Sages taught: … Would it ever enter our mind that the ‘beit din’ committed murder? [Obviously not;] rather, [the elders are declaring,] “He did not come to us such that we sent him off without food; nor did we see him, such that we let him go without an escort…” (Sotah 46b).
But even this answer leaves us puzzled. Are the elders of the city then responsible to feed and escort everyone who visits the city? Would this have ramifications that could lead to the visitor being killed? This is quite unclear.
In order to understand what the Torah is teaching us, we must pay attention to what lies behind the elders’ declaration: a state of passivity. The job of the elders of the city is characterized by their responsibility to do, perform, cause things to happen. They are not allowed to be passive. Where there is passivity, there is a vacuum – which can then be filled with all kinds of negative actions.
This is the perception of the responsibility that rests upon the elders of the city, as the Gemara presents it: they are responsible for active norms and procedures that apply to every person. When they fail to fulfill this responsibility, their state of passivity allows things to develop in a disorganized way, leading to all the negative phenomena associated with chaos – even to the point of murder. And then the elders of the city are called upon to assume a certain degree of responsibility for these results.
The practical lesson that we can learn from this parsha is the importance of action as opposed to standing by and doing nothing; this is of particular importance as regards what is going on in the society around us. When we are passive towards what is going on, we become – to some degree – responsible for the results. Passivity does not remove us from the midst of society; on the contrary – it makes us partners in society’s results, and especially the negative aspects. It is only by means of activity and an active approach that we may influence and bring about positive results.