Who Shall Be Responsible?

In the basement of the Piaseczna Rebbe’s house in Warsaw, slept a number of young bachurim, who had come from other towns to study in the Rebbe’s yeshivah. The Rebbe, Hy”d, used to come by during the night and check up on them to see if all their needs were taken care of.

It was an accepted minhag in parts of Poland to make certain that the moon did not shine directly into the face of a person who was sleeping. One night there was a full moon, and it shone directly through the shutters into the faces of the sleeping bachurim. The Rebbe came in during the night, and he began to drag the heavy metal beds they were sleeping in away from the windows. One of the bachurim awoke in the process and was stunned to see the Rebbe himself dragging his bed.

Many years later, after he merited to build a family of his own, this talmid told his daughter, that during the dark days of the Holocaust, when he was in the concentration camps, there were times when he felt he could no longer go on. He was overcome by grief and incredible suffering. Then he recalled what the Rebbe had done and reasoned, The Rebbe certainly had ruach hakodesh. If he had not felt that I would survive the war, he would never have made such a great effort to drag my bed away from the window by himself. This gave him the courage to go on living and survive the war.

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Toward the end of this week’s parashah we learn the halachos of eglah arufah: what to do if the victim of a murder is found lying in a field. As part of the process, the elders of the nearest city must speak up and say: “Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes did not see.”

“Has it occurred to anybody to think that the elders of the court are murderers?” Chazal ask. But what the elders are really saying is that they did not see [the visitor] leaving and send him off without food and without escort.”

If that is the case, then the converse is also true: If someone is seen leaving a city and allowed to go without food and escort, then no longer can it be said, “Our hands have not spilled this blood.”

The idea that sending someone off without food for the way is tantamount to murder is easy to understand. Rashi explains that such a failure would force a starving traveler to resort to highway banditry, and that in turn can cause him to be killed by a fellow traveler in self-defense. Others say that a famished traveler would be so weakened that he would not be able to fight off an attacker.

How about escorting a visitor? Granted, it is not just etiquette but a halachic requirement that completes the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim. But how can failure to escort someone from the city cause his death?

One explanation (based on Maharal) is that when someone leaves a city without escort, he feels that he is alone in the world and no one cares about him. Dejected and depressed, he will give way to the first adversary he will face. Thus, failure to escort someone from the city can indeed ultimately cause his death. However, when a Yid leaves a city and one takes the time to escort him, he feels that someone cares about him. This feeling will give him the strength to face whatever challenges he may encounter.

* * *

The Talmud Yerushalmi gives an alternate explanation for “Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes did not see.” Instead of referring to the victim, it says, it refers to the murderer. In essence, what the elders of the city were required to say was: “The murderer did not come into our hands only to be allowed to go free; we did not see him, yet close an eye to his guilt.”

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While the halachah pertains to the taking of a Jewish soul through a violent and wanton act, the declaration “Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes did not see” presumably refers to all those forces that continue to cause such grievous harm to the collective spiritual soul of our nation.

Elul is the beginning of a period of spiritual growth and introspection. It is a particularly apropos time to search for and identify all the harmful influences in our lives. It is a time for a fresh commitment, a determination not to allow such influences to “go free,” not to dare “close an eye to its guilt.”

* * *

While this battle is a deeply personally one, it is difficult to fight on one’s own. One must seek advice from “experts” such as the sifrei mussar as well as mentors and true friends.

It is also a time for concern about the physical and spiritual well-being of others. We are obligated, using wisdom and tact, to find ways to help guide and influence others for spiritual growth.

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