The detached teacher
The teacher was always so involved in the text he was teaching that he never looked up at his students.
He would call on a student for translation and explanation, and -- without realizing it -- he often chose the same student day after day.
Out of respect, the students wouldn't point this out to him.
After being called on four days in a row, a student named Goldberg asked advice from his friends.
The next day when the rabbi said "Goldberg, translate and explain," Goldberg replied, "Goldberg is absent today."
"All right," said the rabbi. "You translate and explain."
The final lesson
As America mourns the thousands of innocent lives lost in Katrina, as we observe close to one million people left homeless, and tens of thousands of children scrambling to get into educational institutions for the new school year, it is worth reflecting on an intriguing Midrashic tradition (1) that Jacob's final lesson with his beloved son Joseph just hours before he was kidnapped and sold into slavery dealt with a law concerning an unsolved murder case in this week's Torah portion, in the book of Deuteronomy.
We are all familiar with the narrative. Joseph, who was 17 years of old at the time, was asked by his father to visit his brothers, who were shepherding the family flock near the city of Shechem. When the lad arrived in Shechem, his brothers kidnapped him and cast him into a pit; then they sold him into slavery to Egyptian merchants.
Joseph ended up working for an Egyptian dignitary, then spent 12 years in an Egyptian dungeon and finally became viceroy of that country (2).
Twenty-two years after Joseph was torn away from his father, we are told in this week's portion (3), Jacob received word that he was alive, but he could not believe it. The Midrash relates (1) that since Joseph suspected that this might happen, he gave the emissaries a sign to demonstrate to his father the authenticity of the message: "Tell my father," Joseph suggested, "that when I left him 22 years ago we had just completed studying the laws of the calf that was brought as an atonement for an unsolved murder."
This, the the Midrash explains, is the meaning in the biblical verse of this week that reads, "They told him [Jacob], 'Joseph is still alive and he is the ruler over all Egypt'; but his heart rejected it, for he could not believe them. However, when they related to him [to Jacob] all the words that Joseph had spoken to them, and he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to transport him [from Israel to Egypt], then the spirit of Jacob was revived (3)."
The Hebrew term used for wagons ("agalos") can also be translated as calves. "When Jacob 'saw' the calves that Joseph sent," i.e., when he realized that this Egyptian leader knew the content of the last Torah lesson that Jacob taught Joseph, Jacob realized that this man was indeed his lost son Joseph.
An unresolved murder
What exactly is the nature of this law that Jacob taught Joseph? It is discussed in the book of Deuteronomy and it goes like this:
"When a corpse is found fallen in the field in the land that G-d gives you to possess," The Torah instructs (4), "and it is not known who the murderer is, your elders and judges must go out and measure the distance to the closest city," where we assume the victim was last before his murder. The Talmud explains that a delegation of five members of the Jewish Supreme Court in Jerusalem (known as the Great Sanhedrin) would come to the field where the victim was discovered and make the measurements to the closest city (5).
Following this, the elders of that city situated closest to the corpse, were obliged to go out and bring a heifer as an atonement for the slain man's blood (4). The elders of the city would then declare, "Our hands have not spilled this blood and our eyes have not witnessed it (6)."
Then the priests who accompanied the elders in the ritual would beseech G-d, saying, "Forgive your people ... do not allow the guilt for innocent blood to remain with your people Israel (7)."
The Torah concludes by saying that "The blood shall thus be atoned for. You shall thus rid yourself of the guilt of innocent blood in your midst, since you will have done that which is morally right in G-d's eyes (7*)."
Yet the interesting question is, was it merely a coincidence that the last piece of wisdom Joseph received from his saintly father prior to their 22-year separation focused on the Jewish response to an innocent man slain the field? Or was there something deeper about this final exchange between father and son (8)?
A national crisis
To answer this question, we must examine the purpose of the enigmatic ritual that followed the discovery of a slain victim in the field -- where members of the Supreme Court, the most exalted and distinguished body in the Jewish state, were required to come down and make measurements; the elders of the city were obligated to offer a calf as an atonement and the priests needed to pray for forgiveness.
Biblical commentators explain that the ritual achieved a number of major benefits (9):
1) The ritual served as a means to publicize the event. The publicity would increased the chances of apprehending the murderer and bring him to justice. It also would send a warning to all future potential murderers that they would not get away with an isolated murder of an innocent man.
2) The Torah viewed each member of the nearby city and even each member of the entire nation indirectly responsible for the murder. As the priests proclaimed during the ritual (7*), "Forgive your people; do not allow the guilt for innocent blood to remain with your people Israel."
"Would it occur to anybody that the elders of the court are murderers," asks the Talmud (10)?" What they meant was that "perhaps we did not notice him leaving and we sent him off without food and without escort." Clearly, if we would have looked after this man, he might not have been slain. If he was given shelter, food and company, he might have escaped his horrible fate. What was ho doing out in no-man's land alone? Why did nobody look after him?
For this the entire community of Israel, beginning with the members of the Supreme Court, needed to ask of themselves tough questions. They were required to make resolutions for the future. The ritual served as a tool for repentance and atonement.
Each Mitzvah and law in the Torah contains, in addition to its literal interpretation, a psychological and spiritual dimension as well (11).
What is the meaning of "a corpse fallen in the field" on a psychological level?
The Torah describes the great struggler Esau (Jacob's twin brother) as "a man of the field (12)." In the teachings of Kabbalah (13), a field -- as opposed to a city -- often symbolizes an environment that has no protective fence, a location that is open and vulnerable to destructive forces of immorality, abuse and addiction.
Every community produces a certain number of what we like to call "dropouts" who at some point during their life, particularly during adolescence, abandon the shielded "city" and enter into the unguarded "field" to experiment with all that is available out there. Many of them lose their souls in the process and end up in the abyss, emotionally slain in the killing fields of addiction, despair and moral indifference.
The Torah teaches us that each of these souls who ended up in the "field" and encountered a form of emotional death -- death of innocence, of hope, of dignity and of meaning -- is the concern and responsibility of each and every member of the nation of Israel, including the spiritual giants of the Supreme Court in Jerusalem!
When a fellow human being wanders out to the scary fields of hopelessness, every individual of the community, particularly its spiritual teachers and leaders, must shake the heavens. Each of us must ask ourselves the question, "Perhaps we did not notice him leaving and we sent him off without food and without escort." Did this teenager need somebody to talk to about his frustrations and doubts but could not find anybody? Was this young boy or girl craving for some love, encouragement, inspiration, to no avail?
Each of us must ask ourselves the question, "Are we not responsible in some small way for this youngster's mental and psychological deterioration?"
Principals, educators and community leaders often talk about statistics. "Statistic show," they inform us, "that a certain percent of high school kids end up..." When the future of a particular child in put in question, we have the ready answer: "What do you expect? He or she is part of the statistic."
I do not mean to be harsh, but we must remember that it was Joseph Stalin who said, "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." When we begin viewing people as statistics, we know that our society is eroding from within. Human lives are not means; they are ends in-and-of themselves. The value and sanctity of an individual destiny is infinite, absolute and eternal.
The Nuremberg trials
In "Judgment at Nuremberg," American judge Dan Haywood sentences Ernst Janning, an important legal figure in Germany even before the rise of Hitler, to life in prison for condemning an innocent Jewish doctor to death in 1935. Janing pleads to Haywood that he was unaware of the magnitude of the Nazi horror and that he would have never assisted Hitler had he known what the monster was scheming.
"Those people, those millions of people," Janing begged for his freedom, "I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it." To which Judge Haywood replied: "It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent."
The moment a single life loses its absolute value, a thousand lives, even a million lives, are ultimately not of value; they are merely more chocking numbers.
This is the essential message behind the mitzvah of turning the murder of a homeless man found in an isolated field into a national event. The Torah is attempting to teach us that If hell does not break loose with the undeserving death of a single individual, we are well on our way downward to absolute moral decomposition; we have successfully forfeited the most important staple of humaneness -- viewing each and every life as a reflection of G-d.
Above all, this loaded ritual around a human being slain in the field provides a message for those children or adults who find themselves out in the "field" of confusion and depression.
The message is that from G-d's perspective, your individual life and destiny contains endless value and significance. If you "die," G-d expects everybody to experience the pain, to take part in the path of introspection. Your journey, your struggle, your future is of the greatest importance to G-d, to the world, to history. Know that every deed counts, that each word has infinite power. Fashion each day of your life as if it were a piece of art.
Now we will understand why providence had Jacob teach this lesson to Joseph hours before he was cast into a new hellish reality. For this was the message that rescued a vulnerable Joseph from falling into the abyss, after being brutally torn from a sheltered and sacred "city" and cast into the most depraved "field" on earth. The last lesson that Joseph heard from his father imbued within him the unshakable conviction that his life, each moment of it, was eternally significant; that his choices had divine significance.
Twenty-two years later, when Jacob heard that Joseph did not forget that final lesson, a father's soul was brought back to life. Jacob recognized that despite all the pain and abuse that Joseph endured, his son did not lose the inner spark that gives each of our lives endless nobility and meaning (14).
(This essay is based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in August 1981 (15))
1) Midrash Rabah Vayigash 94:3; Tanchumah Vayigash section 11; Rashi to Genesis 45:27. 2) Genesis 37:12-41:45.
3) Genesis 45:26-27.
4) Deuteronomy 21:1-2.
5) Soteh 44b. Quoted in Rashi to Deuteronomy ibid.
6) The heifer was decapitated. There is a divergent Midrashic tradition that the heifer was merely struck on the back of its neck so that it would run away and find the house of the murderer (Midrash Agadah; Bechaya).
7) Deuteronomy 21:3-8.
7*) Ibid. verses 8-9.
8) Another point in question: From the Midrash it seems that Jacob's spirit was revived primarily because of the information he received that Joseph remembered their final lesson so vividly. Yet this seems amiss: Was the news that Joseph was alive insufficient enough to restore Jacob's life and joy? (See Likkutei Sichos vol. 30 p. 222).
9) See Rambam, Guide to the Perplexed 3:40, quoted in Ramban and Bechaya to Deuteronomy 21:1. Cf. Sefer HaChenuch Mitzvah 530 and Abarbenel on the Parsah. See also Kesef Mishnah to Hilchos Rotzach 10:6. Bechaya to Deuteronomy 21:1. Ramban ibid. Cf. Likkutei Sichos vol. 24 pp. 126-8 and in footnote # 59 and references noted there.
10) Soteh 45b. Quoted in Rashi ibid. 21:7.
11) See Rambam end of Hilchos Temurah.
12) Genesis 25:27.
13) Or Hatorah to Genesis ibid. (p. 142b); Likkutei Torah Reah p. 32b; references noted in Likkutei Sichos vol. 30 p. 223 footnote no. 17.
14) Jacob obviously was unaware of the true significance of this lesson. He was acting super-consciously, as an agent of Divine providence (See Likkutei Sichos ibid. footnote no. 24).
15) Likkutei Sichos vol. 24 pp. 126-131. See also Likkutei Sichos vol. 30 pp. 222-224.