It was the last week of August in 2010. School was back in session, Labor Day was coming the following weekend, and the usual busy pace of life had resumed at Chizuk Amuno much as it has now. My phone rang and on the other end of the line was a social worker at Johns Hopkins Hospital. An 80 year old John Doe had come into the hospital and there was reason to believe that he was Jewish, might Chizuk Amuno be able to be of assistance?
John Doe had died, but the social worker, Jewish herself and highly identified, wanted the community to take responsibility for this man. Over the next 12 hours, his identity came to light as did one of his only requests in life – that he be buried as a Jew. So the community came together to honor that wish – Levinson’s donated their services, we donated our services and our cemetery fees, the monument company donated theirs, and a simple Jewish funeral was planned.
Our tradition has a particular affection for outsiders, for people who don’t quite fit in, who have different visions, and live their lives differently from others around them. One of the stories we tell is about Ruth, a Moabite woman who casts her lot with the Jewish people. She spends her days in the field, an unknown to the others around her, gleaning what she can to make an honest living. An obscure worker in the field. The man we will call David also worked in the field, albeit the fields of Baltimore as a groundkeeper.
We moderns have seen how easily and how often we become oblivious to people in the field who toil. People in fields get forgotten. The last mitzvah in this week’s parashah describes a situation in which a person is found dead in the field in the land that the God has assigned us to possess [Deut 21:1] and we don’t know who is responsible for the death or even for the person himself. The zekeinim and theshoftim, the elders and the judges determine to which community the person is physically closest and that town takes responsibility. And after caring for dead, as was earlier described in the Torah portion Emor, the elders declare publicly: Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. 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. [Deut 21:7-8]
Yadeinu, our hands, Einaynu, our eyes – the elders speak in the plural as a group. Regardless that an individual was likely responsible for his death, the Torah models and the Talmud [Bavli Sotah 45b] goes on to elucidate that our responsibility is collective. We did not do enough to keep our fields or our streets safe, we did not make sure that no human being in the image of God fell through oursociety’s cracks. Therefore, even though we may not have killed him, we are still responsible as a community for the circumstances that brought him to an end in our own city.
In this first week of Elul, a month which begins the reckoning of our failed or merely lacking lives, we read this text, and we are well reminded that we are responsible for other human beings, for other Jews, that we are held accountable for something that might not even have been our fault.
That phone call back in 2010 ended as the parashah commanded, “Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of God.” [Deut 21:9] David’s final wish of Jewish burial was all arranged save for one thing, ten Jews to say kaddish. So at the synagogue board meeting the night before the graveside funeral I told the story of the call from Hopkins about John Doe who had become David and asked if perhaps those who were able could come help make a minyan to bury David from the field with the dignity which he deserved. The next morning 20 people gathered at Chizuk Amuno’s Arlington cemetery with two righteous individuals who had known David. We told the sketchy details of his life that we knew. A life in which he was mostly alone, floundering in the world, quite literally tortured by those who found him alone and different.
While it is not up to human beings to decide whose life has more value than any other, who is more beloved to God – we made sure that David’s life had value to our community. That he was in the end beloved to us and in death was not alone as he was for so much of his life. We used shovels to bury him with our own hands and when he lay peacefully returned to the loving arms of his parents and his God, we praised the name of God with the words of the kaddish.