At the end of this week’s Torah portion we read about a painful ceremony, intended for instances where a murder victim is discovered and the identity of the murderer is unknown. The elders of the closest settlement must perform a graphic ritual involving, among other components, washing their hands and saying “our hands did not spill this blood, our eyes did not see what happened. Atone for your people Israel…” (Deut. 21:7-8).
Washing their hands while saying “our hands did not spill the blood” is a rather contradictory demonstration. The one who sullied their hands by spilling blood should be the one to wash their hands; one who didn’t spill blood should not need to wash their hands, since they wouldn’t be dirty. But the contradictory nature of this action is here by design.
Here we have an instance where saying “we are not responsible” is actually an admittance of responsibility and guilt, at least in a partial sense. While acknowledging that they weren’t directly involved in the murder, the leaders perform the ritual and admit that it is society’s responsibility to prevent occurrences like that from happening.
Nothing occurs in a vacuum. We are all connected, and are all partially responsible for everything that happens around us. Judaism is full of rules, regulations and customs which constantly remind us of our obligations to others and to the world. Join committees and working groups, support the needy and the vulnerable, support important causes – even those that don’t affect us directly, because we’re all in this together.
Our Parasha ends with a hopeful call to action in this regard: “You can remove innocent blood from your midst, by doing that which is right in the eyes of God” (Deut 21:9). Let us all bring this vision to fruition!