At the end of Parshat Shoftim it talks about “Eglah Arufah” a ceremony that a community does when a person is found dead or killed near their town. The idea is that the community does some soul-searching whether they were hospitable or courteous enough to a traveling stranger, whether they have systems in place to accommodate people in need, and they ask forgiveness. All this is even if no one in this town was at fault.
This ceremony is about communal responsibility to the stranger but it doesn’t hold onto guilt.
I have a teenage memory of a modern-day application of this biblical ceremony. Back in the early 1980’s when crime was still a big issue in Crown Heights, a French Jew living in New York named Shlomo Fishman was found stabbed and killed in a nearby subway station. Turns out it was a late night mugging gone bad.
In Shlomo’s memory a program was set up in “770” the Rebbe’s synagogue. They made an area where there would always be cookies and tea or coffee, occasionally sandwiches, so that a passersby or hungry person would always have a bite to eat. This was established in Shlomo’s memory, it was called “Vaad Seudos Shlomo” and it was done in the spirit of the “Eglah Arufah” where a community does soul-searching after a nearby death – were we welcoming and accommodating to a stranger? What can we do to improve on that?
Personally, especially when dealing with alumni issues, Raizy and I often deal with this balance of responsibility vs. guilt. We do feel responsible and want to help and assist as much as we can, but we also can’t feel guilty for circumstances and situations beyond our control, of other people’s lives.
We’ve been plugging the Tuesday Entebbe event this weekend, so this ties right in. Israel didn’t bear guilt for that hijacking of an Air France jet, but it felt responsible for the passengers. And it did something (drastic!) about it.
We, too, must feel some sense of responsibility for our fellows here at college. The Talmud says that “Jews are responsible for one another.” Of course, we don’t bear any guilt for the struggles, decisions and behavior of others, but that doesn’t absolve us from our responsibility to help them and be there for them in anyway we can.
On this theme of sense of responsibility vs. guilt, see this other “Mendel’s Messages” post on a Chassidic story called “Nochum, the Fork in the Road and the Kotinke”