As I reflect upon this horrific episode, and all of the other murders about which we too often learn, there is a passage in this week’s Torah portion that conveys a relevant and timeless message. We learn of an ancient rite of expiation for an unsolved murder. The elders of the city nearest the scene of the slaying cooperate in the ritual of cleaning and sacrificing the Red Heifer, and then together recite the words “our hands have not shed this blood.”
But how can any ritual absolve the people of responsibility for a murder in their midst? One of our sages explains the intent of the ritual and the declaration made by the elders: the leaders of the community publicly proclaim that they were not even indirectly responsible for the murder. They did not withhold food from the murderer or anything that might drive him to commit this act. They offered the victim an escort so that he would not go unprotected into a place of danger.
And what about our violent society? Whenever there is exploitation, poverty, racism or violence in our midst, we cannot claim that “Our hands have not shed this blood.” The message is that we all share in the guilt for such inequities, and for the crimes perpetrated in our community as a consequence of the deplorable social conditions that lead people to do crazy, violent things.
There are so many mentally ill people out there. There are so many people who feel desperation, rejection and hopelessness. Yes, we all share not only in the guilt, but in the resolve to provide more effective social services and measures that might reduce the violence with which we live. Surely, it is no easy challenge, but one in which we all have a great stake.