At the conclusion of this parsha, the Torah describes the unique law of the eglah arufah. If a person is found dead in the field and the murderer is not known, the elders of the nearest city take a young calf break its neck and declare their innocence regarding the death of this person. Abravanel asks how this ritual atones for the sin of murder?
Rambam answers this question in his Moreh Nevuchim in the following fashion. He argues that the elders go through this ritual to call God as their witness they were not careless in their actions thus leading to the murder of this person. Furthermore, he adds that the ritual will cause people to talk about the incident which will lead to the discovery of the murderer. While this explanation rings true to our modern ear, the Torah’s description of the ritual does not mention detecting the murderer as the goal of the eglah arufah.
Therefore, Ramban offers a different explanation. Ramban explains that the ritual was introduced in order to make sure that people do not ignore the murder. Human nature, explains Ramban, is to ignore that which doesn’t apply directly to us. By means of the elders performing this intricate ritual, the people will realize the seriousness of the murder, even though it did not relate directly to them thereby, hopefully, reducing the number of murders in the future.
The gemara, however, informs us that this ritual was not always successful in reducing the murder rate. “When the murderers increased, the ritual of the eglah arufah was abolished,” says the gemara in Sotah (47a). If murder became rampant, the rabbis were afraid that the ritual would lose its purpose and would be ignored.
Although we no longer practice the ritual of eglah arufah, the relevance of its message applies today as it did when the Jews were preparing to enter the Land of Israel.
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