The Talmudic sage Rabbi Meir used to say, “Great is repentance, for on account of one true penitent, the entire world is pardoned” (Talmud Yoma 86b). In effect, this statement posits that a single person’s honest repentance can alter the judgment of the entire world. But, how can redemption come for transgressions that are not redeemed or repented?

In the Book of Deuteronomy, the Torah describes what a community should do when a dead body is found outside a city and neither the murderer nor the victim are known. “If a slain person is found in the land which the Lord, your God is giving you to possess, lying in the field, [and] it is not known who slew him, then your elders and judges shall go forth, and they shall measure to the cities around the corpse. And it will be, [that from] the city closer to the corpse, the elders of that city shall…[perform a ritual known as the eglah arufah that absolved them of guilt]” (Deuteronomy 21:1-3). 

The Torah clearly maintains that individuals must take responsibility for their actions. But, this section of the Torah also demonstrates the Torah’s belief in the importance of communal responsibility. The leaders are held responsible because their community did not make an effort to get to know the stranger who journeyed through their city and did not foster a caring community that would ensure the safety of travellers. 

Sadly, the Talmud notes that the ritual of the eglah arufah stopped being performed 

“Our Rabbis taught: When murderers multiplied, the ceremony of the eglah arufah was discontinued, because it is only performed in a case of doubt; but when murderers multiplied openly, the ceremony of the eglah arufah was discontinued” (Talmud Sotah 47b). This did not mean that the leaders of the town were no longer culpable for the actions of their citizens, it rather signified a general decline in society at large.

Perhaps the solution to this issue lies in Rabbi Meir’s statement. If each individual took upon him or herself to focus on fixing their own transgressions, then perhaps we would return to a gentler society in which murder was a random and unexpected event.

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