How Dare We Forget the Lessons of Abraham

If someone is found fallen in the land that Hashem your G-d gives you to possess, lying in the field, and no one knows who killed him, then your elders and your judges shall come A homeless man sits covered in snowforth, and shall measure to the cities surrounding the fallen man[1].

These are the beginning verses of the Eglah Arufah, which is the calf who’s neck is broken. This mitzvah concerns itself in determining who is responsible to care for the body, and give the body a proper burial. Since any human corpse left to rot in the open defiles the land, the next verse tells us what must happen to the animal chosen to return the kedushah of the land back to its pre-incident holiness.

And the elders of the city nearest the slain man shall take a heifer of the herd, which has neither been worked nor yoked, and they shall bring the heifer to a rough valley, which may neither be plowed nor sown, and they shall break the heifer’s neck[1] there in the valley[2].

The Cohanim, and the elders of the closest city shall make a declaration, if they are so able:

And the Cohanim (from the sons of Levi) shall come (Hashem your G-d chose them to minister to Him, and to bless in the name of Hashem; and according to their word shall settle every controversy and every stroke) and all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley. And they shall speak and say: “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Forgive, O Hashem, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, do not cause innocent blood to remain in the midst of Your people Israel.” And the death shall be forgiven them[3].

I have spoken to a few people about this passage and everyone sees no reason these leaders and the Cohanim have to take the blame. Before I explain, let’s look at one whom we are to emulate:

And Hashem appeared unto (Abraham) by the terebinths[4] of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and fell to the earth, and said: “My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by from your servant. Let a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and recline yourselves under the tree. And I will fetch a morsel of bread, to ease your heart; after that you can pass on; since you have come to your servant.” And they said: “So do, as you have said.” Abraham rushed to the tent to Sarah, (to cook) and Abraham ran (to prepare meat)[5].

In the narrative from Genesis, Abraham rushes to provide comfort and sustenance to the travelers who come near enough to his tent to be noticed. What would happen, or more accurately, what could happen to the travelers if he did not show hospitality to them? Simply stated, there is a chance they would die. Abraham provides life-saving hospitality and in all of the rabbinic writings, there is no mention of Abraham asking for monetary compensation.

We often interpret the body that has fallen in the field as a victim of murder. We see him as the hapless stooge who fell prey to nefarious thieves or accidentally took a stroll through someone’s poppy field. The corpses of murder victims more often than not leave a trail for the wise to track the perpetrator. Therefore, this body seems to be speaking of a different kind tragedy besides malicious murder.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin tells a classic tale of a very wealthy man who had never contributed a dime to his local federation’s annual appeal. A delegation was sent to solicit him. “We’ve been checking up on you,” the leader of the group tells him. “We know that in addition to this mansion in Beverly Hills, you have a large estate in Palm Springs and a chalet in Switzerland. You and your wife both drive luxury cars, and your business opened up eighteen new stores this year. We’re hoping that you would give this year.”
The man was not fazed. “And in checking into my background, did you also find out about my mother who has been in a hospital for three months, requiring private nurses around the clock? It’s not covered by insurance. And did you find out about my uncle whose business collapsed, leaving him with no way to support his family? And did you find out about my two sisters, each of whom is married to a man who can’t hold down a job, and each of whom has two kids in private college? Do you have any idea how much all that costs? And if I don’t give a cent to any of them, what makes you think I’m going to help you?[6]

The body fell in the field because he was not helped. No one fed him when he was hungry, no one gave him shelter, no one gave him what he may have needed to survive. His body fell in the field, leaving no evidence of a violent end[7]. Instead, he died with his body grieving from the lack of concern from his fellow man.

Then he will say…, “Depart from me… for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing; I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.” Then they will ask, “L-rd, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or as a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?” Then he will answer them, “Most assuredly I tell you, inasmuch as you didn’t do it to the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.[8]

In many ways, we have allowed the world to make us callous to the needs of those around us. Somehow, we can no longer discern between those who need help and those who are trying to scam us. No one helps the homeless and no one drops change into the guitar case on the sidewalk because everyone has a story to tell about the “bum” who asked for money and how he went home in a Cadillac. These stories are just excuses we use to justify having a closed hand toward the needy. Our text says, This is how you shall put away the innocent blood from your midst, when you shall do what is right in the eyes of Hashem[9]. Right in the eyes of G-d is tzedakah, which is merciful charity, but more accurately, it is righteousness. One of the things I love best about my wife is she will tell me about the “cute old guy” to whom she gave a McDonald’s or Checkers meal. How dare we forget the lesson of Abraham. Only by our righteous generosity will G-d remove all the innocent blood from our midst.

[1] Some translations say the calf is decapitated, but for reasons revealed later, I prefer the translations that infer the animal’s neck is broken.

[2] Deuteronomy 21:4

[3] Deuteronomy 21:5-8

[4] or in the plains

[5] Genesis 18:1-7

[6] A Code of Jewish Ethics, Vol. 2, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, pp. 197-198

[7] I like the translation neck is broken over decapitated because the person who fell in the field did not die a violent, bloody end; his relationships with his fellow man are broken and this caused his death.

[8] Matthew 25:41-45

[9] Deuteronomy 21:9


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