KEEPING THE FAITH One religious perspective on issues of the day What a bloody mess this world is.
In Mexico, the relentless drug wars have taken 8,400 lives since 2006. In northwest Pakistan, a five-year war continues, with more than 11,000 dead so far. In Darfur, more than 500,000 have died since 2003. Sri Lanka’s civil war has gone on for 26 years, with 80,000 reported dead so far. Civil war in Somalia has lasted 18 years so far; the body count is beyond 300,000. The so-called Kivu conflict has been going on for only five years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but the estimate of the dead stands at 4 million so far. Then there are Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the seemingly never-ending cycle of violence in the Middle East, as Israel defends itself on all sides.
The blood flows so easily, it seems, as to be taken for granted as the way of the world.
What is it about our world in the 21st century that makes the shedding of blood (sh’fichut damim in Hebrew) so commonplace? Why are we not as morally repulsed as we should be by the shedding of blood? After all, the so-called “Judeo-Christian ethic” is rooted in the values and laws that are found in the Torah and reinforced by the rest of the Tanach; clearly, there is a great price to be paid for shedding blood. The Psalmist tells us (72:14) that God Himself “redeems” the victims of “fraud and lawlessness; the shedding of their blood weighs heavily upon him.”
So precious is blood that the murder of one innocent victim “pollutes the land,” according to Numbers 35:33. God, in fact, said as much to Cain in Genesis 4:12: “If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you.” This was because Cain polluted it with Abel’s blood.
God said the same to King David. Thus, we read in II Samuel 21:1: “There was a famine during the reign of David, year after year for three years. David inquired of the Lord, and the Lord replied, ‘It is because of the bloodguilt of Saul and [his] house, for he put some Gibeonites to death.'”
Because “blood pollutes the land,” the Torah mandates an otherwise extraordinary ritual, that of the eglah arufah, the rules for which can be found in Deuteronomy 21:1-9.
On the surface, the ritual itself appears cruel (breaking a heifer’s neck, washing hands in its blood), but there is a point to this gruesomeness. Blood pollution can be cleansed only by bringing the “polluter” to justice. This is not possible when a murder victim is found but the murderer goes undetected; the “land” can never be cleansed. This ritual symbolically transfers the area of “polluted land” to the stream, allowing it to be washed out to sea.
There is more to it, however. The elders must also declare their innocence, both of the murder and of any knowledge of it. This is curious in itself. After all, as the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sotah 46b asks, “would it ever occur to us” that the elders had something to do with the crime?
In a way, they did, the Talmud continues; they failed to take sufficient notice of what was going on around them and thus did not provide the citizens of and visitors to their town appropriate protection.
The ritual, so gruesome that it is not easily forgotten, brings that message home.
This is accountability on a grand scale and one not matched by any law in any country today. No one imputes bloodguilt on public officials, or upon whole communities, for failing to protect one of their own. Only when murders are so rampant that we feel personally unsafe do we hold our officials responsible – and even then only sometimes.
The creation of the Cities of Refuge by the Torah was one way it sought to avoid the shedding of innocent blood. In ancient times, the “blood avenger” had the right to kill someone who killed a member of his or her family (in some places, this right continues today). The Cities of Refuge provided safe haven to the accidental murderer, thus preventing further bloodshed.
Obviously, the key to the success of these cities is a system of well-kept roads, and here we see accountability come into play again. Maimonides tells us that the religious courts that ran communal life have to build the roads, maintain them in pristine condition, and post road signs with the word “refuge” at every twist and turn. “And a bet din that was slow to act in this matter, Scripture considers it as if they [the judges] shed blood,” because they made it possible for the blood avenger to catch up with his quarry. (See Mishneh Torah, the Law of Murderers 8:5-6.)
This is serious stuff, indeed.
The Torah is so serious about the shedding of innocent blood that, is loath to shed even guilty blood.
A murderer’s own confession, for example, is irrelevant because Torah law forbids self-incrimination of any kind and it also forbids circumstantial evidence. Only the testimony of two or more eyewitnesses can be used to convict; the witnesses must meet nearly impossible standards of acceptability; and the court itself must put them through a grueling cross-examination.
So how did we get to such a pass that sh’fichut damim is so much a part of the landscape that it can go unremarked from day to day?
Only when Israel sheds blood in self-defense does the world get worked up enough to howl in protest.
For our part, we need to take Torah seriously. Blood pollutes the land. If we keep ourselves ignorant of the conflicts abroad – starting south of our border and girding the globe – the blood will continue to flow. If we are casual regarding Israel’s need to shed innocent blood to get at the murderers standing behind them, the blood will continue to flow.
The Torah is not so casual. In this week’s reading, for example, it does not give a blanket “get out of jail free” card to one who kills in self-defense. If there was a way other than shedding life to save life, it says “there is bloodguilt.” (See Exodus 21:1-2.)
We do need to support Israel when it moves against an enemy, but we must be mindful of the lives lost.
Blood pollutes the land.