Life Is Not Cheap
On the highway, in the middle of nowhere, a body is found, an
apparent homicide victim. The police cordon off the crime scene and
painstakingly collect whatever forensic evidence remains on the scene
of the crime. They question passersby, travelers who may have seen
someone or something that would shed some light on the identity of the
killer, but they are no closet to finding the killer than when they began.
This death will have to remain a mystery. They file it away among their
other unsolved crimes.
So what is to be done now? Is this the end? Having exhausted all
avenues of investigation, does the case become forgotten?
Not so, says the Torah. There is still a need for atonement. Exact
measurements are taken from the spot in which the body was found to
the surrounding towns and villages. The responsibility for atonement
falls on the one closest to the scene of the crime. Their elders must
bring a calf and perform the ritual of the eglah arufah, and they must
say, “Our hands have not spilled this blood.”
Where in the Torah do these laws appear? It wedges between two
chapters that discuss the laws and ethics of waging war.
The commentators explain that this placement is very telling. In
war, there is a tendency to devalue human life. People see the dead
and the dying wherever they turn, they are surrounded by slaughter and
bloodshed, and life becomes cheap. Therefore, the Torah interrupts its
instruction regarding warfare and draws our attention to the ritual of the
We see the town elders declare that they did not shed this blood,
when no one really suspects them of murder. At most, they may have
allowed the stranger to pass through their town without offering him
proper hospitality. Still, the entire town needs atonement for the
unexplained death of an unidentified traveler. Clearly, all life is precious
beyond measure. And just when we are studying the rules of
engagement in war, we must bear in mind that we cannot allow
ourselves to be brutalized and desensitized. We cannot allow ourselves
to forget the infinite value of a single life.
A young woman standing in a doorway saw a little boy fall off a low
ledge. The child lay on the ground writhing in pain and screaming at the
top of his lungs. Even from the distance, the woman could see that the
child was badly injured and that his legs were smeared with blood.
Screaming and crying desperately. The woman ran though the
streets toward the fallen child. An old sage was also moving toward the
scene of the accident, but at a much slower pacer. He stepped aside
and leaned on his cane to let the screaming woman pass, and then he
A few moments later, he saw the woman coming back, wiping tears
from her eyes with the edge of her apron. When she saw the sage, she
“What happened?” asked the sage. “A moment ago you were
beside yourself, and now you are so calm.”
“Oh yes,” said the woman. “I am truly so relieved. I thought that my
little boy had fallen and hurt himself badly, and I was beside myself with
worry and fear. But I came there and saw it was not my son but
someone else. Now I can breathe again.”
“This other little boy?” asked the sage. “Is he badly hurt?”
“I’m afraid he is,” said the woman.
“Then how can you feel so calm and relieved? Aren’t you upset you
that an innocent young human being is enduring so much pain and
In our own lives, we need to find it within ourselves to care for all
people, not only those in our immediate circle of family and friends. We
are all brothers and sisters, all part of the Jewish people. Every Jewish
life, every human life, should be infinitely precious to us. When other
people suffer, we should fell their pain. When other people die, even if
they are not connected to us, we should feel a sense of terrible loss.
We must remember that if we value other people then we ourselves
have value as well.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.