Humanity in Wartime

War and peace--and the difficulties with both--are the subjects of Parashat Shoftim.

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It seems fitting that parashat Shoftim, which is about justice, ends with a body. The crucial aspect of
the perplexing ritual of the eglah arufith ("the brokennecked heifer") is to force the living to acknowledge their responsibility to the dead. This ritual provides a means to ascertain responsibility for the corpse. According to the Midrash, kindness to a dead person (chesed shel emet) is the truest kindness, for it cannot ever be repaid (B'reishit Rabbah 96.5; see also p. 297).

Why do it? It is the right thing to do, both for the collective of society and for the dead individual. It is only in this state of being a collective that society can operate with justice. Through the totality of these laws, the parashah defines a just society--true kindness and mercy done to all--whether they are brothers, sisters, or enemies, living or dead, human or tree--so that all may find means of sustenance and peace. These values become societal values when they permeate all aspects of life.

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Beth Kissileff is the author of a forthcoming novel, "Questioning Return," and is currently working on a second novel at Yaddo. She has taught at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.