If someone is found in a field stabbed to death and no-one knows who killed him, the elders of the nearest city have to wash their hands as a sign of innocence and say, “Our hands have not shed this blood” (Deut. 211-9).
You may wonder how anyone could possibly have suspected the elders of committing the crime. After all they are the most respected citizens of the city and not likely to be common criminals.
The rabbis explain that no-one is accusing them of actual murder, but by saying “Our eyes have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it”, they were implying, “He did not come to us hungry and we sent him away without food; we did not see him and let him go without an escort” (Sotah 46b).
A crucial question has to be asked, however. Who is it who was not sent away without help? The Babylonian Talmud thinks it is the dead man; the Jerusalem Talmud thinks it is the murderer.
Of course, whichever way the verse is interpreted the point is the same: if something goes wrong in society the leading citizens cannot wash their hands of responsibility. Nor is it enough to have good policing. No: the government and community leaders must ensure they eradicate the conditions that lead to crime.
But come back to the two interpretations. If it is the victim who was not left without help the implication is that if left hungry he would have been too weak to stand up to his assailant; if left without an escort he would have to cope on his own in a dangerous environment.
If it is the murderer to whom the verse refers, it means that he was not left so hungry and desperate that he would resort to anything; he was not left without an escort who could have persuaded him against any foolish action.
Both views are possible. Both point to the serious duty of creating a climate in which crime will simply not happen.