My friend Johnny was lucky. He lived in a Belarussian village near the Lithuanian border and in 1941, the day before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, he was conscripted into the Red Army. Because of this, Johnny was taken east just ahead of the S.S. killing machine. He survived the Holocaust, but his father and siblings did not. Until the end of his life, Johnny would wake up in the middle of the night, tormented by the question of why he survived into old age while his brothers and sister were murdered in their teens.

Survivor’s guilt is so powerful that it doesn’t weaken with the passage of time. Johnny was still grappling with the murder of his family during the Holocaust as a 95-year-old great-grandfather.

Many survivors were burdened by similar feelings. Primo Levi described survivor’s guilt this way: “Are you ashamed because you are alive in place of another? And in particular, of a man more generous, more sensitive, more useful, wiser, worthier of living than you?”

Survivor’s guilt has been the subject of multiple studies. And these types of guilt feelings are not unique to Holocaust survivors; others who experience the deaths of colleagues, such as soldiers or survivors of accidents, experience similar feelings of guilt. Bereaved parents are often afflicted by guilt, wondering why they couldn’t do more for their children. Sometimes it is the innocent who call out for atonement.

Our Torah reading includes an unusual atonement ritual, the Eglah Arufah, which offers insights into the meaning of psychological guilt. A dead body is found, and the murder remains unsolved. The elders of the nearest city then perform a multifaceted ritual in response. First, a calf is decapitated; afterwards, the elders wash their hands and declare, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.” Then the Kohanim call out “Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.”

This ritual of Eglah Arufah is extremely puzzling. Why does an unsolved murder require atonement? And why do the elders have to declare their innocence?

Some commentaries see this ritual as a publicity stunt that shapes the communal mood. The Rambam offers the fascinating view that the purpose of the Eglah Arufah “is evident. … As a rule, the investigation, the procession of the elders, the measuring and the taking of the heifer make people talk about it; and by making the event public, the murderer may be found out, and he who knows of him, or has heard of him, or has discovered him by any clue, will now name the person that is the murderer.”

This explanation doesn’t see the Eglah Arufah ritual as purposeful in itself; instead, its goal is to draw attention to the unsolved murder, and get people to report any information they may have to the leaders of the community.

But other commentaries take a very different view. They see the Eglah Arufah as directly related to questions of innocence and responsibility; and they comment on two aspects. First, they analyze what the elders’ statement “Our hands did not shed this blood” might be referring to. As Rashi puts it, “would it enter anyone’s mind that the elders of the court are suspected of bloodshed?”

The Talmud Yerushalmi offers two opinions as to what this declaration means. One opinion is the elders are declaring that they did not let the murderer go free and fail to bring him to justice. This declaration is an acknowledgment of one type of social responsibility for the murder: The elders must promote law and order, and be vigilant in locating and prosecuting criminals.

The other opinion in the Yerushalmi is that the elder’s declaration is about the victim. They are declaring that they did not overlook the victim, and did not fail to offer him appropriate food and protection to embark safely on his journey. It is a communal responsibility to take care of visitors, one that can be a matter of life and death.

A fascinating view is offered by the Malbim and Rashi’s commentary to the Talmud. Both see the declaration of communal responsibility as being about charity. If a community fails to feed the poor, the indigent will be driven by hunger into a life of crime. In order to obtain food, these indigent criminals will be willing to kill or be killed. The dead body is either that of the victim of a crime, or a criminal killed in self-defense; but either way, if the community had provided for the hungry to begin with, this death would never have occurred.

These are three ways that the community could possibly bear responsibility for the victim’s death. But now a far more important question needs to be asked: Is this Eglah Arufah meant as an indictment of the community, or its exoneration? The very ritual of the Eglah Arufah is self-contradictory: The elders wash their hands and proclaim innocence, while the Kohanim pray for atonement, which implies guilt.

Ibn Ezra views the Eglah Arufah as an indictment of the community, for two reasons. First, he says that the community “erred and did not guard the dangerous roads.” And then he adds that the shocking death indicates that God is highlighting a moral failure in the city, “because if the city had not committed a similar deed, then the murder of a person near their city would not have occurred. God’s thoughts are deep and infinitely beyond our comprehension.”

This understanding sees the Eglah Arufah as a response to moral failure. The community might not have committed the murder, but they are still responsible for it. They should have instituted policies that could have prevented this crime.

Others take a very different view. The medieval commentary of the Minchat Yehuda says the Eglah Arufah ritual expresses the community’s innocence, and they are in effect declaring that “just as the calf is flawless and the ground is flawless, so too we are without flaw and innocent of this sin.” Only the murderer is guilty of the crime.

But this view is puzzling. Ultimately, the Eglah Arufah appears to be a sacrifice, and the Kohanim are asked to offer the community atonement. But if the community is completely innocent, why should they be required to perform a ritual of atonement?

The answer to this question brings us back to survivor’s guilt. Even without guilt, one can have guilt feelings. And for this reason, there is an obligation to bring an Eglah Arufah, because even the innocent need atonement.

The purpose of the Eglah Arufah is to bring meaning to those guilt feelings. By killing the calf, the community reenacts the cold-blooded murder, and the initial feelings of failure, shame and guilt are immediately reawakened. The ritual continues with the oscillating inner dialogue of guilt. Even though one is innocent, and can wash one’s hands of the crime, one still chooses to pray for atonement, to justify oneself as worthy. The Eglah Arufah is a reenactment of survivor guilt, and by dedicating a sacrifice to it, the Eglah Arufah turns these guilt feelings into something sacred and meaningful.

Eglah Arufah is an atonement for the innocent, a way of recognizing that guilt feelings have profound meaning as well.

This is a very different way of seeing guilt. In general, feelings of guilt have a bad name. Psychologists from Freud onward have seen guilt as an unwanted neurosis to be treated and healed. A Holocaust survivor’s fixation on the fate of lost family members could easily be dismissed as unhealthy guilt feelings, the undesirable residue of years of trauma.

But this analysis overlooks spiritual insights into guilt. Martin Buber wrote an essay “Guilt and Guilt Feeling” to respond to Freud’s views on guilt. He argued that there is a second type of guilt, existential guilt, which is taking responsibility for an “injury” to the world order. In a broken world, ethical people will feel the need to justify their existence. This is exactly what the Eglah Arufah is all about, and this ritual is a way of incorporating “existential guilt” into our lives, making the trauma of an unexpected death into a holy sacrifice, and a way to raise our moral consciousness.

Buber’s insights offer a different perspective on survivor’s guilt as well. After witnessing the death of their friends and family, Holocaust survivors felt challenged to prove themselves worthy of being the lucky ones. This existential guilt led many survivors on a quest to rebuild a world that was lost. They would speak to school students about their experiences, and charge them with fighting hatred and anti-Semitism. They sacrificed in order to rebuild the Jewish homeland in Israel. As one observer noted, survivors “bought a $500 Israel Bond every year even if they didn’t have a dime.” Or, they did simple acts of kindness. Eddie, the “candyman” in my previous synagogue, decided to respond to the bitterness he had experienced by making life sweeter for the next generation.

These survivors were grappling with guilt feelings. They were seeking atonement, even though they were innocent. And their quest continues to impact our community today.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

This article was originally published by The Jewish Journal.

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