by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – August 31, 2011

In the Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 16a, we learn that there are two forbidden actions, murder and lashon hara (tale bearing), for which atonement cannot be achieved through regular sacrifices – other means are necessary.  The example given of the atonement for murder is the Eglah Arufah (Decapitated Calf), concerning which we read at the end of the Torah section of Shoftim (Devarim 21:9), “And you shall eradicate the innocent blood from your midst by doing that which is upright in the eyes of G-d.”

The simple understanding of the aforementioned verse is that by performing the procedure of Eglah Arufah one is “doing what is upright in the eyes of G-d” and thereby one achieves atonement for the sin of the innocent blood being spilled.

In his commentary on the Torah, the medieval Torah great R. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) offers a novel alternate interpretation of the aforementioned verse.  Ibn Ezra suggests the verse be read as an admonition: You should do that which is upright in the eyes of G-d, i.e. fulfill G-d’s commandments in general.  Consequently, G-d will see to it that no innocent blood is spilled in your midst.  Ibn Ezra cites this as an application of the principle “the reward for a mitzvah is another mitzvah“.  The verse could then be understood as admonishing the Jewish Court to keep all G-d’s commandments in order to prevent the spilling of innocent blood in our midst.  If the righteous, the scholars and the elders do as they are expected, then chances are improved that the rest of society will behave accordingly and innocent blood will not be spilled in the land.

This can be likened to a remark quoted in the name of R. Yisrael Salanter (1809-1883): “When lashon hara [gossip] is spoken in Vilna, the consequence is chillul Shabbat [desecration of the Sabbath] in Paris”.  Vilna was considered the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” and Lithuania was seen as the “Land of Israel of Europe”.  Vilna was known as the home of great scholars and Torah leaders and its inhabitants maintained a high level of observance.  Nevertheless, people were want sometimes to lapse into gossip about fellow Jews.  Laxity, however, in Vilna would have an effect on the rest of the Jewish world such as in Paris (which was already known then for lax behavior) where the consequence would be sins of even greater magnitude, such as Sabbath desecration.

Similarly Ibn Ezra interprets the aforementioned verse: If we wish to avoid the spilling of innocent blood, then we must elevate everyone around by “doing that which is upright in the eyes of G-d.”

Often we hear complaints of the moral decline of society and the usual reaction is that it is something outside our purview and our control.  But if more of us would pay closer attention to how carefully we truly follow “that which is upright in the eyes of G-d,” then the behavior and attitude of others may follow suit.  By adhering to “doing that which is upright in the eyes of G-d,” we will not only improve ourselves but can also improve the face of those around us.

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