At the end of Parashas Shoftim, the procedures for preparing for war are discussed (D’varim 20:1-29), followed by instructions for waging war (20:10-20). Additional war-related laws are taught at the beginning of next week’s Parasha as well (21:10-15), but in-between, the laws of the “Eglah Arufah,” the calf whose neck is broken as part of the process after a corpse is found, are taught. Why are these laws inserted in the middle of the laws regarding going to war?
This question has two parts to it; why are they adjacent to the laws of war, and why do they interrupt these laws (as opposed to being before or after them, allowing the laws pertaining to war to be taught contiguously). Please note, though, that reasons are given why the laws taught at the beginning of next week’s Parasha are adjacent to the laws that follow them (see Eliyahu Zuta 3, that marrying a captive leads to marrying a second wife, which to having a rebellious son); it is therefore possible that the last set of laws regarding war were moved until after Eglah Arufah to allow for this adjacency. Nevertheless, the interruption is significant, and worthy of discussion.
Ibn Ezra addresses both points, independently. First (21:1, see also Chizkuni), he says after teaching us about fighting our (national) enemy, we are taught about fighting one another. Obviously, this does not address why it is in-between laws regarding wars against our (national) enemies, but he will address that issue later. [The above-mentioned adjacencies could explain this as well.] The question we are left with on this point is that the category of fighting with each other, to the extent that one person kills another, was discussed earlier (19:1-13); shouldn’t the laws of the Eglah Arufah be taught with them there? Why wait until after teaching us the bulk of the laws regarding the nation going to war before coming back to private one-on-one wars?
Abarbanel’s approach addresses this issue, as he says that the laws that are legislated by judges and political leaders are taught first, then Eglah Arufah, where the Kohanim also have a major role, then the “private” laws that are directed towards individuals (those in next week’s Parasha, including the ones that apply during wartime). Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch elaborates further, explaining that after teaching the laws directed at the leaders (who make sure everything is being done properly), a law that deals with a situation that indicates that this leadership has failed (a corpse being found, rather than the person being protected by the authorities), is taught.
Ibn Ezra (21:10) explains the “interruption” as being based on the laws of the Eglah Arufah only applying in the Land of Israel. However, the previous “laws of war” refer to fighting enemies abroad too.
Ba’al HaTurim says that Eglah Arufah is taught with the laws of war because during wartime it is more common to find a corpse. However, since the Sifre (see also Soteh 47a) says the Eglah Arufah process only applies when murder is uncommon, it would seem that placing these laws here specifically based on finding corpses being more common is counter-intuitive. Rambam (Hilchos Rotzayach 9:12) attributes the reason for Eglah Arufah not applying when murder is common to the requirement that “no one knows who did the smiting” (21:1), and if murder is happening regularly, it is likely that someone did see it occur, and therefore knows who is guilty. It can be suggested that since streets are likely vacated during war-time, no one would be around to see who was responsible for deaths occurring then, despite such deaths occur more often than usual. Nevertheless, the context of the process indicates that this did not occur during wartime (see Rashi on 21:7).
The underlying message of the Eglah Arufah process is that each and every life is valuable. The leaders, both political and religious, must publicly atone for the unexplained death of just one person, likely an outsider, whose body was found outside the city limits. War can be very ugly, and usually is, and we can easily become desensitized to the loss of life that occurs (see Or HaChayim on 13:18). This is true even when just hearing about battles and how many people have been killed, let alone being actively involved in a war, taking the lives of others. It is therefore possible that the laws of the Eglah Arufah were placed next to (and after the bulk of) the laws of waging a war, and before laws that apply to individuals, precisely to remind us how valuable each and every life is. [Afterwards, I saw that Da’as Sofrim says something very similar, if not identical; baruch she’kivanti.] War may be necessary (at times), but we must still bear in mind how important the life of each and every individual is.