The Torah’s laws serve the purpose of forming a cohesive and fair society, where members of the community work together to build a better world. The Torah anticipates that sometimes we will fail. People will break the law, and there are remedies available.
But sometimes, there is no remedy, such as a cold case – a crime that remains unsolved and has no leads. Unsolved murders are particularly dangerous for society, for the obvious reason that the killer remains unknown and at large. Should such an event take place in or near a Jewish community, the Torah requires us to be vigilant, and prescribes a ritual to undertake.
The leaders of a city have to take a calf that has never worked, to land that has never been ploughed, break it’s neck, and make a public declaration:
וְעָנוּ, וְאָמְרוּ: יָדֵינוּ, לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶת–הַדָּם הַזֶּה, וְעֵינֵינוּ, לֹא רָאוּ. כַּפֵּר לְעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר–פָּדִיתָ, ה, וְאַל–תִּתֵּן דָּם נָקִי, בְּקֶרֶב עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְנִכַּפֵּר לָהֶם, הַדָּם. וְאַתָּה, תְּבַעֵר הַדָּם הַנָּקִי—מִקִּרְבֶּךָ: כִּי–תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר, בְּעֵינֵי ה – They shall speak and say: “Our hands did not shed this blood, and our eyes were blind. Hashem, forgive Israel, your redeemed people, and do not tolerate innocent blood to remain among Israel, your people.” And the blood shall be forgiven. Purge innocent blood from among you … (21:7-9)
The Torah doesn’t tolerate unsolved crimes. The imagery of asking God forgiveness for innocent blood is especially powerful.
It seems odd that the leaders have to publicly explain that they did not kill somebody – we don’t seriously entertain that possibility for a moment.
So what is the point of the ceremony?
The Chasam Sofer notes that when they say “Our eyes were blind,” it’s not simply saying that they didn’t witness the crime – it’s a confession that the crime happened on their watch.
The Ibn Ezra explains that the Torah expects standards in a community to come from the top. If a murder takes place on your doorstep, the Torah radically suggests there is a shortcoming in the community as well, having not done enough to prevent it.
In that case, the ceremony is not a declaration of innocence; it is a public declaration of guilt.
R’ Chaim Brown notes that while we don’t often have to deal with a literal murder, there are plenty of similar scenarios where the lesson is as relevant as ever.
Chazal often compares vulnerable classes to the dead; the poor and childless, among others.
There are vulnerable people in our circles. With no particular institution in mind, how many children don’t have schools to attend, or get bullied? How many families can’t bear the financial burden of living an observant Jewish lifestyle?
One of the central concepts this mitzva reinforces is that we have a covenantal obligation to each other, and the Torah does not look away when vulnerable people are ignored on our watch – וְאַל–תִּתֵּן דָּם נָקִי, בְּקֶרֶב עַמְּךָ.
The Torah’s vision is that we stand up for each other, and especially those who cannot stand up for themselves.