Parshas Shoftim – The secret of the Beheaded Calf


By: Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld

The Torah is full of laws, but the Torah is not a law book. The Torah is full of history, but the Torah is not a history book. I think the best way to define the Torah is the manual that we were given to use to live in this world in a way that would prep us for living in the next world. And the Torah uses a lot of laws to teach us how to live in this world for the next world, and sometimes the Torah will use stories to teach us a lesson. But I think the way that the laws are phrased can show us layers hidden beneath layers with lessons of how we are meant to live as a Godly nation.

The closing verses of this week’s פרשה (דברים 21:1-9) discuss what to do when a corpse is found in the fields between two cities. The journey from city to city was through undeveloped land in those days and there was a lot of danger and at times, lone travelers would be murdered for their money. The Torah describes how the elders and judges should measure the dead body to the surrounding cities, and the closest city must claim responsibility. They then take a young calf and sever its head from behind (symbolic of how the unfortunate traveler was also murdered unsuspectingly), they make a confession that they were not aware that this person was traveling alone and thereby absolve themselves from any guilt. Seems like a simple enough narrative, with a clear lesson that communities are responsible for those who pass through their cities, and that we should treat strangers with kindness before it is too late. But I think a closer look at this story and the verbiage and paralleling stories will yield a much deeper understanding of these messages and will show how the Torah is one organic and cohesive unit.

The Torah chooses to use the word חלל which can mean corpse, instead of saying אדם מת or just מת. This word חלל only appears a handful of times in the entire Torah, since usually the Torah will use the word מת when referring to a dead person. חלל is an interesting word since the literal definition of חלל is a hole. The reason it can mean corpse, is because when someone dies, they leave a “hole” in the world. Secondly, whereas typically when discussing Eretz Yisrael, the Torah will describe the land that Hashem gave use using the word ארץ, here the Torah says באדמה אשר יהוה אלהיך נתן לך לרשתה, on the earth (or soil) that Hashem will give you as an inheritance, a choice of words that is extremely rare.

These two unique choices of words can be used to paint a picture in our minds. We have a corpse on the ground, but for some reason the Torah wants us to be able to see this corpse as a hole, almost as though there is a hole where the corpse is or was. The Torah also wants us to be able to see the ground in its rawest sense, as soil or dirt. Keep that in mind.

A final item of strangeness is the process of absolvement that the responsible city takes. Both the בית דין of the city and the kohanim are involved but they seem to have opposite views of what happened. Allow me to explain. The בית דין brings the calf and beheads it, and then they make a proclamation “our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see it”, they are basically saying, we didn’t do anything wrong here. Then the kohanim come into the picture, and the Torah tells us that they are there because Hashem chose them to bless the people and that they help mediate all disputes and decide the status of a person with צרעת. But then the narrative seems to switch since the kohanim ask Hashem to atone the people and not to put blame for this clean blood being spilled in the midst of the people. This means that there is blame, and the matter is not as clear cut as the beis din was making it sound. And the Torah continues along this route when the point of view switches to second person and the Torah tells us to actively avenge the clean blood from within our midst to do what is straight in the eyes of Hashem.

Well, did the rabbis of the city do something wrong or not? They seem to say they didn’t, but the kohanim are asking for them to be forgiven, and the Torah sounds like it’s saying that there is something to be avenged. So, who is right here?

Let’s pull this all together now and find the parallels with the unique words and themes here, and watch true depth emerge.

These words of choice, חלל and אדמה, I believe are clues to show us the depth behind the message of caring for strangers. The first human was created from gathered earth, וייצר יה-וה אלקים את האדם עפר מן האדמה, which means that on a literal sense, after Hashem gathered the earth to make Adam, there would have been a חלל, a hollow opening, in the ground where that earth had once been. So we have the person overlaid with a hole in the soil, but it goes even deeper. Because shortly after that earth became Adam, Adam truly made himself the first corpse. He gets told ביום אכלך ממנו מות תמות, on the day that you eat from [the fruit of the tree] you will die, he eats and becomes a mortal being, an inevitable corpse. And if you follow the words, the parallel builds. Chazal say that Adam “fell” from his original level when he ate from the tree, just like in our Pasuk it says that this corpse was נפל בשדה. And just as with this corpse the Torah says לא נודה מי הכהו, it is unknown who caused this fall, by Adam as well there is a lack of clarity regarding the fall. Adam and his wife hide from Hashem, and when Hashem confronts them, they each pass the blame onto someone else. Fruit? A tree? I don’t know, ask my wife. Me? I have no clue, ask the snake. The first sin caused humans to be unable to stare blame in the face and accept it. They started passing blame along and making excuses, very similar to what the בית דין of the city in our פרשה do. They refer to this corpse as blood, and they need the kohanim and the Torah to remind him that this corpse is considered clean blood, and that they need atonement from Hashem, and that this clean blood requires avenging.

This concept of shifting blame dates back to practically the beginning of time, and we are meant to know how deep this sits in our consciousness. We need “kohanim” a higher sense of self that can take on the task of blessing all people, including those that are fighting and disputing or those who are afflicted with צרעת which means that they were not ideal citizens. To know that even those people have clean blood and need to be defended will help a person see the world from the vantage point of the Torah. This will train us to see the world through the lens of our obligations to others as opposed to our rights from them, and this will allow us to take accountability for our actions and see that we are responsible to care for strangers just as we do for our own and for ourselves.

There is one other fascinating parallel here which I need to share. The words חלל באדמה can mean a corpse on the ground but they can also translate to a hole in the ground. And there was once a person thrown into a hole in the ground (he had a נפל בשדה) and it was not so clear who was the final cause of that (לא נודה מי הכהו). Yosef’s brothers viewed him as a stranger, someone to kick out of the family. They did what they needed to do in order to get rid of him, and when the time came to pass out blame, in the beginning they were not so eager to take responsibility for their actions. They simply told their father, we found this bloody coat, do you recognize it? they initially took the stance of the בית דין. But, when they were in Mitzrayim and they see an evil viceroy tormenting them, they realize that this was because of their sins, they are guilty, and they need atonement. They succeeded in climbing to the level of the kohanim in understanding that there is culpability here and that they need to own up, they are now prepared to accept that they were wrong for treating their brother like a stranger. And finally, Yehuda stands up and actively seeks to destroy the root force that caused them to treat Yosef so poorly. He puts himself on the line for another one of Rachel’s sons, namely Binyamin, and promises his father that he will return the boy safe and sound. He then stands up to Yosef to take full responsibility for their previous actions and he is showing that they have moved away from family divisions and that they are now one complete unit of the sons of Yaakov.

I think this may be why the גמרא tells us that Yosef referenced עגלה ערופה when he sent wagons to his father. He was signaling to Yaakov that his brothers had taken the journey from the mindset of the בית דין and shifting blame, to one of acceptance and understanding that forgiveness is necessary, and finally that they were able to actively remove the force that caused the division in the family to begin with. And this was the way Yosef requested that Yaakov relocate to Mitzrayim.

The messages are the same in all 3 cases of Adam, Yosef, and the proverbial lonely traveler in our parsha. #1 – don’t treat strangers differently. Understand that they are not so different than you and show them the love that you would want to receive. #2 – if you did treat somebody poorly, don’t try to escape blame. Understand that you did something wrong and either ask forgiveness or actively try to fix whatever root force caused this issue to begin with.

May we all be zoche to do what is ישר בעיני יהוה.


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