Thursday, September 4, 2008

Shoftim—The Political Is Personal

This week’s parsha closes with the passage of egla arufa, the procedure to be undertaken when the body of an apparent victim of murder is found in between two jurisdictions.

The egla arufa ceremony serves as an indication of an instance when a breakdown in the social fabric occurs, and the various authorities summoned to perform the various functions are enjoined to examine whether they have been remiss in keeping order, even inadvertently, to the point that an ostensible innocent has perished.

As R’ Avraham ibn Ezra and Chizkuni delineate, this passage follows the passage regarding the ethics of besieging an enemy, because, as they put, it links a national state of war with a personal state of war that resulted in murder.

Chizkuni also asserts that the process of measuring meticulously to determine the locale last responsible for the deceased allowed for investigation as to the identity of the deceased, because word would inevitably get out, indicating that a cover-up was never to be an option.

Rashi, quoting the Talmud in Sotah, states that the Sanhedrin HaGadol administrates the beginning steps of the procedure, indicating that the case is given national import.

Rashi also explains what the declaration “yadenu lo shafchu et dam hazeh” means: there was no reason to assume that this man was not provided with provisions and an escort when he left town. Interestingly, it seems the authorities were realistic enough to discern the need for escorts and protections, even among and between members of clal yisrael.

The medrash states that when Yosef sent “agalos”, or wagons, to Yaakov back with his brothers after revealing himself to them, this was a code, of sorts: Yosef was reminding Yaakov that the two of them were learning the halachos of egla arufa when they had last seen each other. We might see that Yosef wasn’t simply assuring his father that he hadn’t forgotten to open a sefer in the prior 22 years. Instead, Yosef may have been telling his father: I may have an incredibly powerful position, but I know what it really means in terms of responsibility, especially regarding preservation of life and provisions.

With the conventions over, running mates selected and the campaigns now in full swing, its easy to forget, what with all the promises and issues bandied about, the real meaning of leadership and responsibility. This applies both to candidates and voters. Keeping in mind the lesson of egla arufa might serve as a reminder that, while the personal may be political, the political is always personal.

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