. . . and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Accept this atonement for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, LORD, and do not hold your people guilty of the blood of an innocent person.” Then the bloodshed will be atoned for, and you will have purged from yourselves the guilt of shedding innocent blood, since you have done what is right in the eyes of the LORD. — Deuteronomy 21:7–9
The Torah portion for this week is Shoftim, which means “judges,” from Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9, and the Haftorah is from Isaiah 51:12–52:12.
Golda Meir, the first woman Prime Minister of Israel, once said, “When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.” This tragic statement so powerfully captures the sentiments of the Jewish people – not just today, but for thousands of years.
This week’s reading concludes with laws regarding war. Two laws are mentioned in this week’s portion, and one more in next week’s reading. Strangely, in between these laws, we find a law belonging to a different genre. It is the protocol regarding homicides.
The situation described in the Bible occurred during a time of peace. In the event that a murder victim was found in the fields beyond the cities, the elders of the nearest town would take a heifer, lead it to a valley, and slaughter it. Then they would proclaim: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done . . . do not hold your people guilty of the blood of an innocent person.”
By following this elaborate ritual, the elders acknowledged that they were somewhat accountable for the murder that took place because either they could have provided greater protection for the victim or better education about the value of life for the murderer. There was an element of guilt. However, after assuming some responsibility, the elders turned to God for forgiveness, which He undoubtedly granted. The entire process left the community more sensitized to the value of life and the severity of being even partially responsible for the taking of one.
So what is this law doing among the laws of war?
The Jewish sages explain that this law was purposely placed at this juncture in order to inject the laws of war with sensitivity toward life. The Bible acknowledges that there are times when war is required. However, there is a danger for the soldiers to lose their sense of appreciation for all living things. This is what Golda Meir bemoans in her statement. This law comes along to remind us that it is possible to stay sensitive to the value of life, and in fact, we are required to do so.
There are two kinds of soldiers in the world – those who desire death and destruction and those intent on protecting life and freedom. Let’s never forget which side we stand on. As Golda Meir aptly said, “We hate war. We do not rejoice in victories. We rejoice when a new kind of cotton is grown, and when strawberries bloom in Israel.”
We don’t rejoice in destruction; our supreme value is, and always will be, life.