Parasha thoughts: Whodunit?

The fact is that whatever goes wrong in our community, we all bear a share of the responsibility.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple

Judaism IDF soldiers at the base synagogue
IDF soldiers at the base synagogue

When you open a thriller you are tempted to turn straight to the last page to find out who committed the crime.

Fortunately most people know that they’ll get there in the end and if they know in advance that the culprit was the postman or the housekeeper or the butler the book will lose its excitement and fun.

So please do the same thing with the incident in today’s Torah reading about a dead body that was found by the roadside when no-one knew who had carried out the murder.

Was it the victim’s wife, who had had enough of her husband? Exciting, but we don’t know the identity of the victim and we can’t automatically blame one of his family.

Was it his neighbour? Highly doubtful, for a similar reason.

Does it help to know that the body was found in between the two nearest villages? Not much, because it could have been someone from either place, a highway robber, even a passer-by.

The first thought in the Torah seems to be that the elders of the nearer town were guilty - but they complain to God, “Our hands did not shed this blood!” (Deut. 21:7-8).

Of course the reader‘s brain cells get working overtime by this wording. “The elders”, we say; “Who could possibly have suspected the elders – upright, respectable members of society?”

Yet this is the line which the Torah seems to take – blame the local elders! Why ever would anyone point a finger in that direction?

The explanation is that the victim might have been looking for friendship and neither town gave him a welcome; he might have wanted food but no-one noticed his hunger. He might have needed a bed for the night and the locals all said, “We’re OK thanks; we have houses and beds, so why should we worry about him?”

The fact is that whatever goes wrong in our community, we all bear a share of the responsibility.

The thrillers ask, “Whodunit?” The sad fact is that I dunit, you dunit, we all dunit – the elders too.


Laws about judges inevitably speak about judicial impartiality and attempts to bribe a judge.

Bribes, we are told (Deut. 16:19) "blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous".

Why the reference to eyes and to words, i.e. the mouth?

The wise person uses his or her eyes to see and take in the whole situation, not seeing only what the giver of the bribe wants the person to see.

The wise person is also careful in the use of speech and says what needs to be said – tactfully, to be sure – without tailoring their remarks to the interests of one party.

A hassidic story tells of an attempt to bribe the Rabbi of Apt in the hope of securing a verdict that would go a certain way.

Knowing that the rabbi was not amenable to open bribery, the party concerned put money in the rabbi's pocket, feeling that this would achieve the desired result.

The rabbi, however, did not empty his pockets and was unaware of what had been tried. Nonetheless, he had a strange feeling at the following day's judicial session that he was leaning too much towards the case of the person from whom the money had come. He closed the session, went home and wept, asking God for wisdom and guidance.

Only some days later did he find the money in his pocket and he immediately realised what had inadvertently begun to affect his thinking.

The hassidim tell the story in order to urge a rabbi or any other judge to be aware of even the inadvertent bias that can result from an unconscious attempt at bribery.


"Tamim tih’yeh im HaShem Elokecha" – "You shall be wholehearted with the Lord your God" (Deut. 18:13).

The comment of Alshich is that even if you are on your own and it is only you there "with the Lord your God", you should be just as committed to the Almighty as if other people were watching.

Think how upright and law-abiding we are when others are looking, but in private, we let our guard down.

Alshich reminds us that we are never alone. We are always in the presence of God. When no-one else is around, He is still there, watching and noticing.

The siddur says, "At all times let a person revere God, in private as in public". Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said, "If only you feared Heaven as much as you fear human beings" (B’rachot 28b).

A hassidic teacher reinforces this notion by means of an examination of the word "tamim". He links it with the concept of "tam" and "mu’ad" in halakhah.

"Tam", "innocent" or "innocuous", is the term used for an animal that has caused injury once or twice but not more often; its owner is liable for only half the damage it does.

"Mu’ad", "forewarned", is an animal that has done injury on three successive occasions and is deemed to have an injurious propensity; its owner is liable for the full damage it does.

Says Rabbi Simcha Bunem, "A human being can sometimes easily deceive other people and give the impression of being a 'tam' and trustworthy, when the truth is otherwise. God, however, sees and knows everything, and one must always seek to be a 'tam' in God’s eyes."

Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Jewish religious issues. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at