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Parsha Mitzvot: Shofetim: Mitzvah 504 – Concept 491

“If a homicide victim should be found lying in a field in the land the Lord your God is giving you, and no one knows who killed him, your elders and judges must go out and measure how far it is to the cities in the vicinity of the corpse. Then the elders of the city nearest to the corpse must take from the herd a heifer that has not been worked – that has never pulled with the yoke –and bring the heifer down to a wadi with flowing water, to a valley that is neither plowed nor sown. There at the wadi they are to break the heifer’s neck. Then the Levitical priests will approach (for the Lord your God has chosen them to serve him and to pronounce blessings in his name, and to decide every judicial verdict, and all the elders of that city nearest the corpse must wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley. Then they must proclaim, “Our hands have not spilled this blood, nor have we witnessed the crime. Do not blame your people Israel whom you redeemed, O Lord, and do not hold them accountable for the bloodshed of an innocent person.” Then atonement will be made for the bloodshed.  In this manner you will purge out the guilt of innocent blood from among you, for you must do what is right before the Lord. (Deuteronomy 21:1-9)

On 19 December 1916, in the last December of the Romanov Empire, a corpse bobbed to the surface of the Malaya Nevka River in Petrograd. Ice-encrusted with a mutilated face. But the most startling thing was its hands. It bound hands were raised. For there, under the icy water, that extraordinary individual, although beaten and shot, had still been alive, and had still been trying to break free of his fetters. And, as the police would later write in their report, great numbers of people hurried down to the river with flasks, jugs, and buckets to ladle up the water in which the awful body had just been floating. They wanted to scoop up with the water the deceased’s diabolical; improbable strength, of which all Russia had heard.  (The Rasputin File by Edvard Radzinsky, Page 1)

My grandfather, Rabbi Yaacov Yitzchak Ruderman zt”l explained why the elders of the city declared “Our hands have not spilled this blood”: The Talmud says that no one had escorted the person from the city. My grandfather asked: How did they know? How would an escort from the city have saved his life?

He answered that someone who leaves a city alone, feels alone and therefore weak. Someone who leaves with an escort feels honored and therefore stronger. He would have fought back.

We can literally give someone the strength to fight, or fight harder for his life by simply treating him with greater respect. The Egla Arufa teaches us that we bear some responsibility for people we know who give up without a fight.

Consider the Russian peasants who were so inspired by the evil and hated Rasputin’s fight for life that they wanted some of the water in which he fought his final battle. We are moved and inspired by fighters. The Egla Arufa reminds us that we can nurture the will to fight in the people we know and meet.

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