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The Value of an Individual

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


Summarized by Darren Lauber


Parshat Shoftim concludes with the fascinating ritual of the "egla arufa," the decapitated heifer. The Rishonim differ widely in their understanding of this extraordinary ceremony, which is practiced when an murder victim is found in the field and the perpetrator is unknown. Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim perceives the episode of egla arufa as a pragmatic exercise. The publicity engendered by the event (involving the Kohanim and Elders of the city) would greatly arouse the people, causing eye-witness testimony or other relevant information to emerge.

Ramban, on the other hand, views egla arufa as a chok, a law seemingly without rational explanation, placing it in the same category as the red heifer and the scapegoat. It is a procedure on the border of kodshim and chullin (sacred and profane), apparently designed to attain atonement on some level.

Ibn Ezra is more specific, explaining egla arufa as a procedure designed to achieve atonement not so much for the murder, as for the sins of the townspeople which, metaphysically, allowed a murder to take place in their vicinity.

Perhaps we can offer another understanding of the ritual of egla arufa. The Gemara in Yevamot states that despite the debate as to whether to expound juxtapositions in the rest of the Torah, it is generally agreed that we do expound juxtapositions in Sefer Devarim. The question that we must therefore ask ourselves is why the topic of egla arufa appears in the middle of the laws of war (sandwiched between the laws of siege and the laws of the captive woman).

A war scenario is an extreme and trying situation in which certain perspectives can change. The unit of war is the nation, army, or battalion. In such circumstances, it is possible for the individual soldier to lose his sense of identity, personal worth and contribution. The individual becomes subsumed to the collective and loses his significance. Another danger is the development of a militant and aggressive character. It is imperative that these consequences do not emerge.

Inevitably, war entails the loss of many lives. Such bloodshed often leads to insensitivity to the value of human life. This is the reason for the placement of parashat egla arufa within the laws of war. A single corpse lies solitary in a field. The corpse is anonymous, the murderer is unknown, there are no known relatives or friends of the victim. Almost certainly, the solitary wanderer came from the lower strata of society. According to the Sfat Emet, it is not even known whether the corpse is that of a Jew or a non-Jew. Despite all these facts, the Torah mandates the whole procedure of the "egla arufa" - where the most senior and prominent members of the city closest to the corpse profess their innocence and pray for atonement.

In contrast to the tendency in wartime to denigrate the value of the individual and of human life in general, the parasha of egla arufa stands out to remind us of the exceptional value that Judaism places upon human life, and of the significance of each individual in the eyes of the Lord.

(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Shoftim 5755 [1995].)




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