Preventing Dependency

"Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." How many fish do we buy, and how many nets?

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Isaac Abarbanel, the fifteenth century Spanish-born Bible commentator, points out that this is the reason for the elaborate ritual of the beheaded heifer:

"All of the details of this commandment come to make the matter known, as though the act announces and testifies that they [the citizens of the town] are all suspect…. The act will arouse attention and hint at the great punishment which will come to the city because of the murder…. and this is cast upon the judges and the city elders because the lack of justice among them led to the bloodshed."

Occasionally, we need to focus on the horrific consequences of indifference and inaction. The bizarre ritual served the ancient world as the mass media does today. By highlighting a particular tragedy, society is sometimes spurred to action.

The Talmud also relates, however, that when murders increased, the ritual of the beheaded heifer ceased. 

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.