Elli Schwarcz – Shoftim


The end of this week’s Torah reading discusses a very unique set of laws: that of the Eglah Arufah ceremony.

The Torah teaches us what to do if a human corpse is found outside of a city. This passage gives the impression that the inhabitants of the area must address the tragedy as an occurrence for which they are possibly responsible. Representatives of the city must follow a procedure that entails specific expressions of prayer, regret… and self- defense.

First, the town elders must take a calf which has never yet done any work (such as plowing or carrying things). They take this calf out to a valley- which itself has never been worked or planted. There, in the presence of Kohanim and other members of the town, the elders actually break the calf’s neck, killing it. The Kohanim then approach, and the elders wash their hands over the calf in their presence. The elders make a declaration- and the Torah assures us that their actions and prayers are accepted:

Subcribe to The Jewish Link Eblast


“Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes did not see (who did kill this man). Pardon your nation, Israel, whom You redeemed, Hashem, and don’t put innocent blood in the midst of Your nation, Israel.” And the blood will atone for them.

– Shoftim, 21:1-8


It’s evident from the language of the elders’ proclamation and prayer that they need to absolve themselves of guilt; if they must explain that they did not spill the blood of this dead person, and have to ask God for mercy, it’s because we would first assume that they are in fact culpable for this person’s death. Alternatively- or, perhaps, in addition- the ceremony shows us that they are in fact to blame for this person’s death. After all, they seem to be praying for forgiveness, or to be treated with special understanding…


Several basic questions about this whole procedure should jump out at you:

  1. What connection do the calf, the valley and the elders and the kohanim have with each other?
  2. Why do they kill the calf?
  3. Why must the elders pray for atonement and proclaim that they have not killed this person?

We don’t know who murdered this stranger. We do know, though, that the townspeople did not accompany him out of the city- and that now he is dead. The Torah is teaching us a scary lesson here: he was killed because he had not been accompanied- and that we may be to blame for his death.

‘Our hands did not spill this blood…’

Would it enter our mind that the elders are murderers? Rather, (they are admitting that) ‘we did not see him off, and we allowed him to leave without food or company.’

– Gemara Sotah 45b

The elders are representing the whole city, and acknowledging the circumstances that led to this tragedy. Had this person been treated better as he left, he may not have been murdered, and for that fact they must ask God for forgiveness.

Before explaining how better treatment could have avoided this murder, we look again to the Talmud to explain the significance of the ceremony:


God said: ‘Let this calf- which has not produced anything- have its neck broken in a place that has not produced anything—and atone for the murder of this person, who they did not allow to produce…’

– Gemara Sotah 45b


The murder victim has died prematurely, not being allowed to produce or to grow anymore, like a tree chopped down that can no longer yield fruit. We must realize that we could have done more to keep him alive so that he could produce and share his unique personality, his unique soul, with the world. And we must take action, killing the calf in a way that will remind us very powerfully what happened- and what could have been. We still wonder, though: how could we have helped? How could accompanying this person to the city limits and giving him food have helped him not get murdered… perhaps a week or two later? How could there possibly be a connection between the two events?



The answer, teach our Rabbis, lies in the victim’s feelings. True, we could never be expected to travel past the city limits, to be with this person for the length of his travels. But had we treated him with the proper respect, had we made him feel good and important, maybe he would have fought back against the attacker just a little harder. Maybe that extra feeling of self- worth he could have gained from feeling respected and appreciated by others would have served as just a little more motivation to live and to fight off that attacker with more determination; there would be that much more worth living for. And so there is a very real connection between these two events, and we must understand that we could have done more for this person, and that it possibly would have saved his life.


After Yosef revealed his identity to his brothers in Egypt, he told them to go back to their father Yaakov with the message that he was alive and a prince in Egypt. He also had them bring up donkeys carrying food for him and the extended family, as well as wagons which would transport all of them to Egypt to live there. These wagons had special meaning to Yaakov:

And he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to transport him, and Yaakov their father was revived.

—Vayigash, 45: 27

What was it about these simple wagons that did this to Yaakov?

With these wagons Yosef gave them a sign, hinting at what Torah topic he had last studied with Yaakov 22 years before: the Eglah Arufah (‘calf whose neck we break’ as the atonement for the stranger we find murdered). [The Hebrew words for wagon (agalah) and calf (eglah) share the same letters.] – Midrash


-Of course, this was a great hint, a way for Yaakov to be convinced that this was not some terrible trick and that this Egyptian ruler really was the son he had long thought dead- but there is more happening here. When exactly was the last time Yosef had seen Yaakov 22 years before? What were the exact circumstances under which they parted ways?


And he (Yaakov) told him (Yosef): ‘Please go and see how your brothers are doing, and how the sheep is doing, and bring me back a report.’

– Vayeshev, 37: 14


Yaakov sent him to check on the brothers, and when they saw him they grabbed him and put him in a pit, from which he was eventually taken to be sold as a slave. Maybe, just maybe, Yaakov had been bothered all of these years with a haunting thought: perhaps Yosef had ‘died’ because he Yaakov had not accompanied him properly! And this was exactly what Yosef made sure Yaakov would see immediately upon hearing the news that his son was alive:


‘We were last studying the laws which teach us the importance of accompanying someone- and you did do that properly! The purpose of accompanying is to give the person strength and self- worth- and you did that for me! All of these years, the only reason I was able to survive, completely alone in such a hostile environment, was because of the confidence you had in me. My brothers misjudged me, but you gave me the multicolored coat as a sign of appreciation. They laughed at my dreams, but you believed they could come true. And so only because of how you treated me then am I still alive and still producing…’


May we take the lessons of the dead stranger, and of Yaakov and Yosef, and remember that a kind word or action we do for someone can build him up… and give him life.


Have a great Shabbat!


Elli Schwarcz

Elli is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.




Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here