This week we read Parshas Shoftim. At the end of the Parsha, the Torah describes to us the law of the Eglah Arufa – the killwed calf. If a person is found who has been killed, and we don’t know who killed him, the elders of the city that is closest to where the body was found have to take a calf that was never worked with, and never carried a burden. They had to take this calf to a valley that was never planted, and they would break its neck, as an atonement for the murder of this person who had not been allowed to live a productive life. The elders then had to recite a prayer, saying “Our hands did not spill this blood; nor did our eyes see it. Please atone your nation Israel that You have redeemed, Hashem, and don’t allow innocent blood to be spilt in Your nation Israel,…” (Deuteronomy 21:7-8).
Rav Leib Chasman, in his classic work Ohr Yahel, asks a most basic question; We only have this ceremony if we don’t know who the murderer was; If we do know who it was, then this atonement is not deeded. Why? At least in a case where for some technical reason the murderer was not put to death, shouldn’t it be necessary to make some sort of atonement for the murder that was done?
He answers that the Torah is teaching us a most important lesson, especially important at this time of year, before the High Holidays. When a murder is committed, and we know that, everyone understands that something is wrong in our society. There is a problem that must be addressed. To ignore what has happened is not an option. When we don’t know who killed this person, however, there is in a way an even greater problem than just the murder. There is a strong possibility that people may not even realize the immense size of the problem that we must face. People may doubt whether there was even a murder here; maybe the injury was self-inflicted; maybe it was done by a Gentile. The lack of recognition of wrong-doing, is of even greater concern than the actual sin itself. Here, the Torah says, we must have the elders bring a sacrifice and follow a procedure – to make sure that there is a recognition of what needs fixing.
Rav Chasman points out that this lesson is of utmost importance as we prepare for the High Holidays. The first step we must take, even before repentance, is to be honest and recognize what our shortcomings are. Only after we do that, can we hope to repent and to make a fresh new start after Rosh Hashana.