The Torah details many laws that help regulate society. As with any legal system, the Torah anticipates that sometimes people will fail, break the law, and what to do about it.
But sometimes, it’s already too late. Some crimes go unsolved in what is called a cold case, when there are no leads, no suspects, and no witnesses, which is particularly dangerous for the obvious reason that the perpetrator remains at large and unidentified.
The Torah describes such an example.
In the event an unidentified body is discovered in an unpopulated area, the Torah commands a specific and highly bizarre ritual, where the elders and leaders of the closest city take a calf to a nearby river or stream, break its neck, and make a public proclamation they didn’t kill this innocent person:
וְעָנוּ, וְאָמְרוּ: יָדֵינוּ, לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶת-הַדָּם הַזֶּה, וְעֵינֵינוּ, לֹא רָאוּ. כַּפֵּר לְעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר-פָּדִיתָ, ה, וְאַל-תִּתֵּן דָּם נָקִי, בְּקֶרֶב עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְנִכַּפֵּר לָהֶם, הַדָּם. וְאַתָּה, תְּבַעֵר הַדָּם הַנָּקִי–מִקִּרְבֶּךָ: כִּי-תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר, בְּעֵינֵי ה – They shall speak and say “Our hands did not shed this blood, and our eyes were blind. Hashem, forgive Israel, Your people, and do not tolerate innocent blood to remain among Israel, your people,” and the blood shall be forgiven. Purge yourself of the guilt of innocent blood, and do what is right and proper in the eyes of God. (21:7-9)
Beyond the specifics of the ritual that require their own explanation, it’s quite something for the Torah to require the elders, sages, and leaders to say they weren’t the killers.
Would anyone seriously suspect that they were?
Rashi explains the proclamation to mean that they didn’t know there was a traveler and therefore were not complicit in the murder by letting them travel in a dangerous area alone. The Sforno similarly explains that they must affirm that they didn’t knowingly permit a murderer to roam free.
The Chasam Sofer takes a very different approach, observing that it is straightforward to say the murder was not their fault, but they don’t get to say that. In this reading, the ceremony is not a declaration of innocence; but a public statement of collective responsibility and guilt, a confession and acknowledgment that the crime happened on their watch.
Or in other words, there is no question of why the Torah summons the elders and sages and leaders to answer for the quiet mystery death of an innocent; it’s the answer.
“Our hands didn’t kill this person; we didn’t hold the knife, or the gun, or give them the pills. But that’s as far as we can go in disclaiming responsibility. Because we weren’t looking, we weren’t paying the close attention this person deserved and needed, so the criminal – and the victim – slipped right through our fingers.”
When the Torah describes the Mishkan construction process, it presents an exhaustive account of each donation because the leaders were publicly accountable for each contribution; and that’s just for finances! As the Lubavitcher Rebbe said, people are not dollars.
If you are surprised the Torah requires leaders to account for human life, then, like the sages who perform the ritual, you haven’t been paying attention.
In the section detailing the rituals for sacrificial atonement, the Torah talks about leaders who make mistakes:
אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶחֱטָא וְעָשָׂה אַחַת מִכּל־מִצְות ה אֱלֹקיו אֲשֶׁר לֹא־תֵעָשֶׂינָה בִּשְׁגָגָה וְאָשֵׁם – When a leader incurs guilt by doing unwittingly any of the things which God commanded not to do, and he realizes his guilt… (4:22)
The Torah plainly and unambiguously talks about when, and not if, leaders make mistakes because avoiding mistakes in power is impossible; we need to stop pretending otherwise because denying errors compounds them and makes things worse. Very few people expect a society without any wrongdoing, but corruption and impotence in dealing with misconduct are highly destructive; the cover-up is always worse than the crime.
When politics demands a lie, but people demand the truth, you get corruption. Leaders that face painful truths are not just morally preferable; they save lives. Wilfully blind leaders playing make-believe about real problems in our community alienate and disillusion people who care, weakening their ties to a community that won’t show care and concern to the people who need it! We can’t afford to tolerate leaders who fixate on maintaining the illusion of infallible perfection and divine knowledge. We will never correct our community’s mistakes so long as we deny them and don’t confront them. While we can’t reasonably expect perfect leaders, we can reasonably expect perfectly compassionate and honest leaders who will do what is right and proper.
On Yom Kippur, the great Day of Atonement, the Kohen Gadol’s first atonement ritual is a personal confession for himself and his family, publicly owning his mistakes.
Every year before Tisha b’Av, we publicly read Isaiah’s explicit rage against corrupt leadership and broken institutions that don’t protect the vulnerable – רַחֲצוּ הִזַּכּוּ הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי חִדְלוּ הָרֵעַ׃ לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה… שָׂרַיִךְ סוֹרְרִים וְחַבְרֵי גַּנָּבִים כֻּלּוֹ אֹהֵב שֹׁחַד וְרֹדֵף שַׁלְמֹנִים יָתוֹם לֹא יִשְׁפֹּטוּ וְרִיב אַלְמָנָה לֹא־יָבוֹא אֲלֵיהֶם.
The Ibn Ezra explains that the Torah is suggesting that when something terrible happens in a community, that community has some introspection and soul searching to do. In fact, this is the Rambam’s universal guidance on how to respond to tragedy; bad things happen in a climate and environment, and we can identify the factors that make them more likely to occur in a given context and change them.
We don’t often have to deal with murders in our community, but the Torah doesn’t explicitly talk about murder at all – כִּי־יִמָּצֵא חָלָל בָּאֲדָמָה… נֹפֵל בַּשָּׂדֶה לֹא נוֹדַע מִי הִכָּהוּ.
R’ Aaron Lopiansky teaches that we must not mistakenly classify sexual abuse as a sin or misdemeanor. It is no exaggeration to say that sexual abuse is a matter of life and death, among the most severe crimes a human can commit, right alongside murder, which ties back into the severity of the sage’s confession over an unidentified body.
If a survivor of abuse commits suicide, who really killed them?
R’ Aharon Lichtenstein warns against resorting to the no-true-Scotsman fallacy – “he wasn’t really one of us!” We don’t get to disclaim wrongdoers after the fact when they fit in seamlessly alongside the best and brightest our community has to offer until being found out. We have to be willing to ask the difficult question of what allowed them to hurt vulnerable people yet blend right in with us.
There are good reasons why victims are scared to report crimes in our community, and if you want to sleep well at night, make sure you’re not one of them. People who have experienced abuse and trauma are not damaged goods, not pitiful, stained misfits who deserve your deepest sympathies. It’s not their fault. You need to believe them, and you need to believe in them. The abuser’s best friend is the Sefer Chofetz Chaim; they rely on and exploit the fact that their victim will remain silent.
You can be very sure there are victimized and vulnerable people in your circles. If you don’t know of any offhand, you ought to wonder why no one trusts you enough to share that with you. It starts with not turning away or keeping silent when people misguidedly or maliciously defend abusers; victims must know in their bones that you are with them all the way, otherwise you are complicit.
The Torah uses emotion extremely sparingly, so we ought to sit up and notice when it does. The way the Torah uses the imagery of spilled innocent blood to demand the sages publicly beg forgiveness is particularly powerful; the Torah has no tolerance for unanswered crimes, where the victim dies alone and invisible – וְאַל-תִּתֵּן דָּם נָקִי, בְּקֶרֶב עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְנִכַּפֵּר לָהֶם, הַדָּם. וְאַתָּה, תְּבַעֵר הַדָּם .הַנָּקִי–מִקִּרְבֶּךָ.
Every time one of our institutions acts to protect a victimizer instead of the victim, we fail that test.
On Shabbos, Jewish communities worldwide for generations have said a prayer for the victims with a particularly stirring line:
כִּי־דֹרֵשׁ דָּמִים אוֹתָם זָכָר לֹא־שָׁכַח צַעֲקַת עֲנָוִים – For He does not ignore the cry of the distressed; He who requites bloodshed is mindful of them.
The Torah plainly and unambiguously demands that leaders take extreme ownership and recognize the systemic failures that lead to an innocent person’s untimely death, with a ritual of collective responsibility for contributory negligence, that they did not meet their duties of care to the standards the victim required.
Today, purging ourselves from the guilt of innocent blood and doing what is right and proper in the eyes of God means allegations should be taken seriously and thoroughly, and impartially investigated. We do what is right and proper by upholding the rule of law, applying the law evenly, without fear or favor, even if the accused is someone we care about and look up to. Call the police, and report the abuse. Make sure the authorities know and make sure competent mental health professionals are involved. If there’s the slightest hint of impropriety or wrongdoing, the institution must reorganize.
The Torah’s consistent vision of our society is that we stand up for each other, and most especially for those who cannot stand up for themselves. Systemic failures in our entire communal framework allow such things to happen, and the Torah calls on the leaders of that framework to account for bad things that happen on their watch.
“We didn’t see! We didn’t know!” These excuses don’t cut it when your head is in the sand and you didn’t do anything last time around. The errors and omissions for things we weren’t paying attention to are still sins that require rectification on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – שוגג / על חטא שחטאנו ביודעים ובלא יודעים.
If good people don’t enforce what is right and proper against abusers and criminals because we’re afraid of backlash or negative attention, then the abusers and criminals win by default because no one bothered to stop them.
It’s not the mayor, Rosh Yeshiva, or local rabbi who must perform the ritual; it’s all of them, which is to say that no one gets to say it’s not their fault. We are responsible for both our actions and inactions.
Who watches the watchers? All of us – שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן־לְךָ בְּכל־שְׁעָרֶיךָ.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. We deserve leaders who protect the people who need it most, and we ought to demand that; if we can’t disempower bad leaders, we need new institutions and leadership.
Leaders are responsible for their communities, but communities are responsible for who they will follow.