Several weeks ago, when we learned about ‘arei miklat, the cities of refuge, we underscored how important it was to the theology of Biblical Israel to avenge all spilled blood. That makes the final topic covered in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, truly fascinating. It’s the ritual of the ‘eglah ‘arufah, which is a response to finding a corpse in no-man’s-land. The Torah prescribes several different ritual behaviors: the slaughter of a heifer (and the animal must meet certain criteria); a hand-washing ceremony; a declaration of innocence by the elders; the presence of priests, though they have no specific role to play.
Biblical scholars have long debated the symbolic significance of each element of the ceremony. They’ve also tried to explain why the ceremony has so many components, and whether these actions complement each other or are in fact redundant. It’s fitting at this time of year to consider this question, since the Biblical authors had a crucial goal in mind: kapparah, atonement, for bloodguilt.
We, too, have kapparah on our minds. We’ve begun the month of Elul, and are saying an extra Psalm to begin the ritualized process that leads up to our Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. We also perform multiple complementary (or redundant) rituals in our quest for expiation. What are those various rituals, and why do we need so many?
We’ll discuss this further on Shabbat morning.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,