This week’s Torah reading includes the mitzvah of eglah arufah, a ritual act whereby the neck of a calf is broken to atone for the murder of a person who was slain by an unknown assailant.

In ultimate terms, a Jew’s life is his connection to G‑dliness, as it is written: “You, who cling to G‑d your L‑rd, are all alive today.” On this basis, we can understand the cause of the death of the person slain. His connection to G‑dliness was cut off. Why? Because he was found in the field. The field refers to a place outside the realm of holiness. It is not an innately negative place. On the contrary, it is food that is grown in a field that sustains man. Nevertheless, in the field, one can meet “Esau… the man of the field” and be influenced by him. In simple words: Once outside the realm of holiness it is very easy to slip into the error of seeking worldly accomplishments and pleasures without a G‑dly intent. This is spiritual death — the cessation of the person’s bond with G‑d.

The eglah arufah was brought to absolve the people of the neighboring city for their responsibility for the person’s death. Why might they be held responsible? Seemingly, the one who has died is responsible for his own death. After all, he left the city, a place of Torah, and went out to the field? Why then are others — the city elders, no less — responsible to atone for his death?

The mitzvah of eglah arufah highlights the flaws associated with such a line of reasoning; no one should use such an argument to absolve himself of responsibility. There is an inner bond that ties all Jews together and connects us to all of our brethren, even those who have made wrong choices and are found “in the field.”

The elders of the city model the obligation that applies to us all — by performing this ritual and declaring: “Our hands did not spill this blood.” Our Sages explain that they are saying that they did not let the slain person depart the city without providing him with food and an escort. “Food” refers to Torah study. Before a Jew goes out to the field, the Jewish community must provide him with “food,” spiritual nurture, and they must also see that others accompany him, so that he will not face the challenges of the field alone.

Parshas Shoftim is always read in the month of Elul, the month when — as explained in the renowned analogy of the Alter Rebbe — “the King is in the field.” Every Jew should “follow in His paths,” and leave the security of the “city,” the established Jewish community, and go out and extend himself to those Jews in the “field,” helping them find their way back to their Jewish heritage. Moreover, he should do so with happiness, emulating the King who, as the Alter Rebbe continues in that source, “accepts all with a gracious countenance and beams a shining countenance to all.”

Looking to the Horizon

Parshas Shoftim also speaks of prophets and the guidance they will give the Jewish people, saying: “I will raise up a prophet for them from among their brothers… and I will put My words in his mouth.” On one hand, that is a very inviting thought — to know that someone will be telling you G‑d’s word: that you can apply what he says with utter confidence because this is not a man guessing what may or may not be right. He is communicating truth from above.

On the other hand, that is very frightening, for we can imagine how this potential can be misused. There are many gullible people who will swallow anything that people say. Indeed, the more “spiritual” the persuader looks and sounds, the more some people are swayed by his message. For this reason, the Bible itself warns about false prophets and the damage they can cause.

Maimonides writes: “It is one of the fundamental principles of faith that G‑d conveys prophecy through man” — for G‑d wants that His word be communicated to mankind. And yet for thousands of years — ever since the initial years of the Second Temple — there has not been a prophet in the complete sense.

One of the hallmarks of the era of Mashiach will be the renewal of prophecy. Indeed, in a letter to the Jews of Yemen, Maimonides starts that “shortly before the coming of Mashiach, prophecy will return to the Jewish people.” After Mashiach’s coming, prophecy will become a universal phenomenon. “And it shall come to pass that I will pour out My spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophecy; your elders shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” In preparation for Mashiach’s coming and certainly after his coming, mankind will benefit from the positive dimensions of prophecy without having to worry about the drawbacks of false prophets.