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Parashat Shoftim

The Supreme Value of Life

The Torah portion Shoftim brings us, among other things, the section about the axed heifer. Today, this portion seems anachronistic, lacking all practical meaning for us.

The portion speaks about an unsolved murder when it is impossible to punish the murderer, simply because no one knows who the murderer is.

The portion presents a situation that is fairly absurd. The Torah demands that a whole complicated ceremony take place in order to atone for the death of an anonymous person about whom nothing is known.

But there is another point that is no less interesting.

Not only does this portion seem anachronistic, but its very place in the Bible is also puzzling.

The section about the slain heifer is found between two sections that deal with war and begin with the words "When thou goest forth to war" (Deuteronomy 20:1, Deuteronomy 21;10)

What is the connection?

I read a brilliant answer to this question by Rabbi Ya'acov Ruderman. He says that there is no place more fitting for this portion than the place where it appears, between two wars.

He thinks that war – any war – where there are hundreds or even thousands dead, both soldiers and civilians, brings in its wake a meaningful decrease to the value of human life.

The portion of the slain heifer proves that human life is a very holy thing, so much so that a whole city and its elders are required to take responsibility for murder that took place near their territory.

Our portion protests against the concept that "human life is cheap". There is no such thing in Jewish tradition; life is always of great value.

There is not in Judaism – almost – a more crucial command than that referred to as "Met Mitzvah".

"Met mitzvah" refers to a dead person having no one formally obligated to bury him (her). The law is that anyone who encounters this corpse is obligated to perform the burial rite even at great expense to himself or even if it means canceling other important mitzvot.

For example, the High Priest, under normal conditions is forbidden to come into any contact with a corpse, including his family, closest relatives and even his parents. However, the High Priest is obligated to defile himself by carrying out the necessary rites of burial for a "Met Mitzvah" even on Yom Kippur!

In my opinion, this synthesis with respect to human life is found in a story that is told about former Prime Minister, Golda Meir of blessed memory.

In the days of the War of Attrition, Gold Meir said: "I gave an order to my advisors to inform me of the death of every Israeli soldier in battle, even if it happens in the middle of the night. On the day that President Nasser gives the same order to his advisors, there will be peace between us."

Perhaps this is the greatest gap that divides us and our bitter enemies. For us, human life is always a precious value.

Weekly Torah Portion

Old Hebrew Prayer Book
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