If a murdered body was found in Israel, the elders of the nearest city were held responsible. Accompanied by the priests, they were obliged to take part in a complex ritual; taking a calf down to a barren valley, slaughtering it there and swearing an oath in which they denied any responsibility for the tragic death.
The rabbis of the Talmud were stunned by this law. It seemed inconceivable that our religious leadership would be suspected of cold-blooded murder. So why the ritual and why the oath?
The Talmud (Sotah 46b) explains that the elders did not swear that they had not murdered the victim, since that could be assumed; rather they testified that they never allowed strangers to leave their presence without the necessary provisions and accompaniment to ensure a safe journey from the city. Failure to offer this care would be tantamount to murder.
The elders' oath reminds us that our responsibilities to strangers go way beyond not harming them. We must actively ensure their safety and comfort.
The principle remains chillingly pertinent. Most of us are blessed to live in communities where the roads are safe, but loneliness and depression are all too prevalent, especially among newcomers to our neighbourhoods, singles, the divorced, and the widowed.
As the High Holy Days approach, we too need to take responsibility for those who may be alone or vulnerable in our communities, inviting them to accompany us to synagogue and join us for Yomtov meals.