When a corpse is discovered between cities and the murderer is not found,
the Torah prescribes the Rite of the Axed Heifer be performed by the Sages
of the nearest city. Following the axing, the Sages recite, "Our hands have
not spilled this blood and our eyes did not see. Atone for Your people
Israel that You have redeemed, G-d; do not place innocent blood in the
midst of your people Israel." (Devarim/Deuteronomy 21:7-8). What is this
statement saying? Why do these Sages need to profess their innocence? Are
they genuinely suspected to have perpetrated the act? And what did they not
see? Obviously if the Sages could identify the criminal they would; what
does this statement add?
Chasam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg, 1762-1839, acknowledged
leader of Hungarian Jewry of the time) explains that the very fact the
deceased is discovered in close proximity to a city indicates the presence
of sin in that city, for such ill fortune could not befall a community
devoid of sin. Our High Holyday liturgy is replete with references to the
challenges we face as a Divine tool to encourage repentance and recalibrate
our focus toward G-d and fulfillment of the mitzvos (Divine commands) as an
instrument to bring us closer to Him. Such a tragedy is indicative of a
severe spiritual shortfall of the communal populace.
Thus, the Sages recognize that "our hands have not spilled this blood" - no
one from our city perpetrated this gruesome crime. So how could such an
atrocity occur in our province? Because we, the spiritual leadership of the
local population, have not fulfilled our mission to our people. "Our eyes
did not see" the weakened spiritual state of our congregation, but we are
obligated to "see" this deterioration. Because of our lack of attentiveness
the people sinned, thus causing such calamity to occur in our locale.
As we look at the events in the world around us, we see that the timeless
Torah concepts related by Rabbi Sofer two centuries ago are no less true
today. We are bombarded with news of death and destruction - in our
communities, in our country, around the world - and we feel there is
nothing we can do. We see no connection between ourselves and events in far
off places. Yet now, as we start the month of Elul, with daily morning
shofar blasts reminding us that the High Holydays are imminent, we look for
inspiration to draw us closer to G-d. True, we have not spilled the blood.
But we must open our eyes to see our weaknesses. We must hear the Divine
call to return. And we - like the Sages of old - must respond.