“I wash my hands of this”
This is a phrase we often use when we are putting distance between ourselves and something we want no part of. This week’s parasha, Shofetim, may just contain the origin of the phrase. It’s sort of a CSI moment.
In Chapter 21 of D’varim, the text puts forth a scenario. Let’s say a body is found out in the open and no one knows who committed the crime. The elders and judges of the towns from the nearest towns are supposed to come out to the crime scene with measurement tools so they can determine the distance from the body to each of the two towns. When it is decided which town is closest to the unfortunate individual, the elders of that town are to prepare themselves for an elaborate ritual. They need to bring to the river a heifer that’s never been yoked. There, they break the heifer’s neck, and the priests in attendance pronounce a blessing using God’s name. Then, the elders of the town “nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken…and they shall make this declaration, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Adonai Your people Israel..and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among your people….Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent” (Deut. 21:7-9) The elders of the town literally wash their hands of the situation.
Now, we could take this scenario at face value and say the Torah is telling us how to handle unsolved crimes by way of a religious ritual. But the more important message lies deeper. When we say we’re washing our hands of something, we are acknowledging that it’s not our fault; we had nothing to do with it. It’s simply not our problem. And then, we can walk away without feeling guilty. Many say this ability to just walk away from a problem without any repercussions seems to have invaded and taken hold in our society. Often, we don’t feel responsible for things with which we have not been directly involved. So why would the Torah in fact seem to encourage this attitude by giving us a “way out”?
The text is saying just the opposite. Sometimes the Torah presents us with something that is so outrageous, we can’t believe that’s what the text really means. For example, in this very parasha, we’re taught that a disobedient son should be stoned to death (Deut. 21:18). The Rabbis had trouble with this, as you might guess. So, the Rabbis interpreted this passage to mean before something so extreme could take place, so many limitations and preconditions had to be in place, this horrific result would essentially never happen. I think that’s the point here, too, describing the elders as they wash their hands of any responsibility for the death of the unknown person. No one seems to know the victim, much less who killed him. He apparently is not a resident of either town, or has any friends or family nearby. This is an extreme example of alienation from the community, and this is why the scenario is actually a cautionary tale. If all the other social and communal relationships are maintained, the odds of something like this happening are quite small. It’s as if the Torah is saying, “Look at the consequences when there is someone so alone in your midst that no one even knows if he dies”. Like the disobedient son who gets stoned, it wouldn’t ever come to the point where someone is attacked and dies alone,
We know there are tragic costs when frail or elderly people have no one checking on them when the weather becomes dangerous, or when the abused have no safe places to heal. Our Jewish tradition teaches us to care for the weak and vulnerable in our societies. It is one of the most important values we hold. We can’t absolve ourselves from the responsibility, because the community is indeed responsible. The blood of the innocent is all around us. Let us look for opportunities not to wash our hands of those in need, but rather, reach out to them.