Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger
The Responsibility of Miracles
Whereas for others it is a potter's field story, for our people it becomes a public call for introspection and prayer. That is the remarkable ritual of egla arufa, through which the lone Jewish murder victim found in an unpopulated area becomes the catalyst for national hand wringing and stocktaking. The ritual itself of killing an unharnessed calf dramatically assigns value to every single soul and demands of local leadership to accept responsibility for their safekeeping. It may very well be that this parsha has been unusually impactful and has singularly seared into Jewish consciousness the absolute preciousness of every life. This truth is tested time again on the battlefield, in the war rooms in Israel, and in the philanthropy-seeking pitches of countless organizations.
That is why the culminating prayer (21:5) offered by leadership, "forgive the nation that you have redeemed", with its seemingly unnecessary reference to our redemption of old, needs greater study. Why is a parsha focused on the value of life and on the systemic flaws that failed that creed connecting us to our redemptions and particularly to our redemption from Egypt?
Even more surprising is that Chazal (Sifri, Horiyos 6a, Kerisus 26a), in answer to this question, interpret that this prayer asks for atonement for the generation of Jews who experienced that exodus. That is to say that the present-day leadership while admirably taking responsibility for a murder on their watch are instructed to deflect it as well. Truth be told it sounds frighteningly similar to contemporary spinning or some legal defense!
Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (in his sefer Meshech Chochma), with his trademark creativity, suggests that we are asking to be pardoned for this crime as if it had taken place prior to our entry into Israel. Those generations were not yet charged with the mitzvah of arvus; that is, they were not held responsible for the flaws of their contemporaries. Thus, for some unrecorded reason we are asking to be judged by their standard. Yet I think that this is one of those solutions that speaks to the textual difficulty at hand. After all, the simple reading suggests that when we fail the safety of another Jew we assuage our shame and hold our ancestors, who experienced the miraculous, responsible.
I believe there is a lesson here that should resonate with us, as our generations are also witness to the miraculous. Let me explain.
The hard truth that Chazal are expressing is pointed out by Rav Moshe Shternbuch, head of the Eidah Chareidis of Yerushalayim in his sefer Ta'am Voda'as. Incredible as it is, the Torah wants us to appreciate that the failure to value the safekeeping of every Jew stems from the failure to successfully transmit the miraculous narrative of our people. I do not know whether it was the safety provided to the Jews during certain plagues, or the protection that every family received in the intimacy of their homes (the miracle of shivtei ko), or simply the invitation to every Jew to be a part of the story through participation in the korban Pesach, or merely the miracles performed for the delivery of every worthy Jew. Whatever it was, Chazal understood that we would never fail the concerns for the safety of a Jew had we successfully imbibed the mesora of the miracles that occurred. Apparently, a people richly endowed with transmitted testimony of the appreciation that Hashem has for all our people would inescapably design a society that offers utmost protection to every soul.
In addition to the good textual fit of Rav Shternbach's comment, I find that the responsibility that it places on generations that witness miracles to be powerfully instructive. We are such a generation.
We are witness to the miracle of the rebirth of our people growing year after year. We should be keenly aware of the protection that we have received from on High from tunnels, fire laden kites and knife wielding terrorist, even as we have suffered terribly from them. With any trip to Israel we cannot miss seeing the beginning of the prophesized incoming of far flung Jews. During visits to Israel and to the local grocer we are witness to the fulfillment of the words of Yechezkel hanavi (36:8), "...you, the mountains of Israel, give out your branches and carry your fruit for my people Israel for their coming is drawing close." Our embrace of this mandate that we thankfully shoulder will help us strengthen our faith and that of our children and merit the life lessons and blessings that come with it.