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Parshas Shoftim - Drafting the Final Words       5 Elul 5782

09/01/2022 04:03:41 PM


In this week’s Parshas Shoftim, the Torah states that if a person should be found slain and the identity of the killer is unknown, the elders of the city closest to where the victim was found are to bring a calf down to a valley and decapitate it at that very spot. They then openly declare that they had no part in the death of this victim and ask for atonement for the people of Israel. We understand the procedure and details of this mitzvah. The underlying message is clear:  a tragedy of this sort cannot be allowed to pass without strong response from those nearby – even if the tragic event was not of their doing. Although the Torah is focused on the identity of the killer being unknown, chances are that the identity of the victim is also unknown. As we read in the Torah דברים כא:א כִּי יִמָּצֵא חָלָל בָּאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לְרִשְׁתָּהּ נֹפֵל בַּשָּׂדֶה לֹא נוֹדַע מִי הִכָּהוּ   Devarim 21:1 “This is what you must do when a corpse is discovered fallen in the field in the land that God your Lord is giving you to occupy, and it is not known who the murderer is.” The focus is on the anonymity of the murderer and not necessarily on the victim. The Gemara in Sotah and the Rambam Hilchos Rotzeiach codifies that if the identity of the murderer is discovered (even if the murderer is on the other side of the world), then the procedure of Eglah Arufah (breaking the calf’s neck) is not performed.  I would endeavor to postulate that if the identity of the victim were to come to light, then we would still go through the Mitzva of Eglah Arufah. The reason: we must stand up for the victim; we must take responsibility when not knowing the murderer even if we now know who the victim is. Apparently, one of the main issues is the identity at least having some knowledge of  the perpetrator, and, no less important, knowledge of the victim. Over time, we develop connections, knowing, connecting the people we meet to those who are around us.

Knowledge and ever-deepening of understanding continues to grow through experience of years of learning how to address tragedy and loss. Being a pulpit rabbi for close to thirty years has helped deepen my awareness of human behavior and has earned me some wisdom. Every pulpit rabbi, perhaps anyone whose work requires helping and guiding people,  has built up a treasure trove of stories and lessons gained over the course of his career that can help and benefit others. Mentoring assistant rabbis and communicating with and learning from other rabbis in the field builds additional layers of growth and wisdom. Questions and interests shared among the rabbinate contribute profoundly to the scope and depth of hands-on learning. Recently, I was having a discussion on death and dying which spilled over into bereavement and mourning. From there the discussion found its way to the cemetery and funerals, including some of the stories – and nightmares – that I have experienced. During that discussion someone asked,” Have you ever officiated at a funeral for someone you did not know?”  It was a great question, and the short answer was, “Yes, I have.” In fact, my rabbinic training course under the tutelage of Rabbi Wein included a public speaking class. We were given a topic to develop and present before the class. One assignment was to deliver a eulogy for someone whom we did not know. That exercise served me very well; my very first opportunity to preside over a funeral came to me in a most unusual way. The following story provides modern reinforcement to the mitzvah of Eglah Arufah.

Before I became a pulpit rabbi, my wife and I taught Judaic studies at a day school in Binghamton, N.Y. One day, my boss, the principal of the school, approached me and told me that a woman had just passed away and the rabbi of the synagogue was out of town. Under those circumstances, as in many smaller Jewish communities, the principal of the school was the default rabbi in charge. He was not particularly interested in doing the funeral in the middle of winter in Binghamton which at that time was experiencing below freezing temperatures and layers of snow over twelve inches deep. So, logically, he turned to me, knowing that I was aspiring to become a community rabbi, offering me the opportunity to conduct the funeral. He told me that the deceased was not someone from the community and this would therefore bring only a small gathering with very little pressure. I reasoned this would give me some good experience, so I agreed to do it.

Part of our training included preparation for a funeral/levaya. The first step was to visit with the immediate family and the mourners prior to the funeral in order to explain three things: 1) what will take place at an orthodox funeral; 2) review the laws of mourning, and 3) take the time to learn about the person whom you will be eulogizing. I asked about the deceased’s youth, education, work history, passions, hobbies, and family life. It was a cold, blistery, winter night as I made my way to the apartment of the deceased’s widower.  We sat down and introduced ourselves, then I began to execute my game plan. I went through the first two parts without incident. When it came to learning about his wife, I asked the widower a question or two. At that moment when I asked about her, his face grew stern, he closed his eyes, and with his hands in the air exclaimed, “Oh! What can I say! What can I say!” I jumped back in my seat and regrouped, changing the topic, and then approaching it from another angle to glean some information about his wife. Once again, arms raised, now palms open, raising his voice a bit stated, “My wife! Oy! What can I say! What can I say!” Again, I gave the husband a little time to regain his composure.  I tried one last time, once again asking if he could tell me something about his wife. Once again, now in a more forceful tone of voice, he called out,” My wife! My wife! What can I say! What can I say!”. At that point I realized I was not going to get anywhere. The next day I walked to the podium to deliver a eulogy for a woman I had never met, raised my hands off the podium, and cried out,” Oy! Mrs. So and so, what can we say, what can we say!” Yes, there are times we do not know the deceased and we are left wondering what happened to that person. This painful story provides perspective regarding our responsibility to the victim. But it also goes deeper: what about me?  This is the time for introspection and for growth.  It is a time to honestly evaluate how we are living our lives.

I felt that the lady whom I eulogized was a victim who had no identity. There was nothing we could say about her – nothing good, nothing bad. She was a “Jane Doe” who had no one to speak on her behalf. As we go through the month of Elul, we need to take the time to evaluate our lives, we need to ask, “What will people say about me when I am gone?” We cannot go through life and after 120 years have the eulogizer get up and repeatedly state,” What can I say! What can I say?” It is critical that we spend these precious days and years processing what others can say about notable things we’ve done, contributions we’ve made, memories we’ve woven into the fibers of our families and community. We live in this world to do and to act for the sake of others, for the sake of those we love, of those whom we can positively help and guide. Let this year be the year of creating the eulogy of what will be said about ourselves after 120 years of giving and caring!

Ah Gutten Shabbos

Rabbi Avraham Bogopulsky

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784