Some are Guilty, All are Responsible

Sermon Parashat Shoftim
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Some are Guilty, All are Responsible

How many of you is a fan of the ‘whodunit’ crime-solving genre? Just think about your favorite novel series or TV show. We’re going to look at this very odd passage from the Torah - because the strange passages can teach us so much. Toward the end of parashat Shoftim, we find a very curious set of verses in Deut. 21:1-9 dealing with the eglat arufah, the ‘broken-necked cow’. Like in every good murder mystery, the mystery of the eglat arufah relies on three key elements: means, motive and opportunity.

In this case, the Torah provides us with an unsolvable crime. What’s going on here? At this point in the Torah’s narrative, the land is settled by Israelite towns and villages and we have an operational judiciary system (which is the theme of the entire parashah!) Between those settlements of this nascent nation, an anonymous dead body is found. We don’t know who killed him or her. We don’t know why. We know nothing about either the perpetrator or the victim. Because the crime cannot be solved through the usual judiciary means, the Torah mandates a ‘ritualized’ way to ‘resolve’ the crime and allow social peace to prevail, in order to stabilize a potentially destabilizing social situation. (Imagining how a heinous but anonymous crime might shock a small, agricultural community is probably not difficult for us here in Iowa City).

Rather than sending out forensic experts, the Torah commands us to send out judges and elders – legal experts and community leaders – and measure the distance between the corpse and the closest cities. The closest city is responsible for bringing an offering. A young heifer (cow) that has not been put to work, the eglah arufah, is taken to a wadi (dry river bed) that is also considered ‘unspoilt’. There its neck (‘oref’) is snapped. Then a team of ritual experts – Levites - is brought in and the elders ritually wash their hands testifying how they and their communities are innocent and that they seek atonement on the community’s behalf.

There are some interesting themes here worth unpacking. Apart from trying to come to terms with the inability to find a resolution, the text also addresses the tension between innocence and complicity, responsibility and atonement. On a communal level, when faced with an injustice, it is possible to be both innocent and responsible. All of us, through our actions, can set a chain of events into motion that may have disastrous consequences. Alternatively, all of us as a wider community of people are connected to the moral agency of the whole. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, ‘We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.’

This notion of communal responsibility is reflected in Talmudic interpretations of our Whodunit. In Tractate Sotah (45a), the Talmud asks the rhetorical question: are the elders really responsible for the murder? The answer given points towards that the lone traveller who ended up dead in a field may not have received the hospitality, support and protection that he needed so that he in his vulnerability, fell victim to the crime: In other words, it’s not sufficient to claim that we are not responsible for what happens outside of our domain, beyond our borders or control. Even negligence may have its consequences, and consequences deserve a resolution. Another interpretation states that the purpose of the ritual of the eglat arufah is to stir us from our complacent rhythms; to not take violence for granted but to contemplate the connection between the violent act and our own lives.

Again, the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat (54b) makes this even more explicit by expanding the concentric circles of responsibility:

“Whoever can prevent his household from committing a sin but does not, is responsible for the sins of his household; if [he can prevent] his fellow citizens, he is responsible for the sins of his fellow citizens; if [he can prevent] the whole world, he is responsible for the sins of the whole world.”

These sentiments are echoed by the famous contemporary female Torah scholar Nechama Leibowitz:

“Responsibility for wrongdoing does not only lie with the perpetrator himself and even with the accessory. Lack of proper care and attention are also criminal. Whoever keeps to his own quiet corner and refuses to have anything to do with the ‘evil world’, who observes oppression and violence and does not stir a finger in protest cannot proclaim with a clear conscience that, ‘Our hands have not shed this blood’”
(Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim (Jerusalem 1980), 207-208).

Looking at this ritual from an anthropological perspective, it is no accident that a heifer is used: the heifer (or cow) is a symbol frequently employed to convey deep meaning in our tradition. There is the Golden Calf that was inappropriately worshiped and there is the ritual of the scattering of the ashes of the red heifer used to purify the impurity of death. Perhaps this ritual echoes these meanings: death, loss, atonement for sin. Allowing us to have a channel to come to terms with raw emotion and scant resolution.

Maybe this ritual is the Torah’s way of saying: ‘sometimes there are no answers but we as a community can still go through a cathartic process of self-reflection and acknowledgement of tragedy without playing the blaming game.’ The eglat arufah, then, becomes a metaphor of communal mediation and conversation, the leaven for communal change.

Strikingly, a few years ago, some Jerusalem rabbis crafted a modified eglat arufah ritual to deal with the tragedy of fatal hit-and-run car accidents. Ten rabbis formed a minyan and recited appropriate prayers after the death of Amnesh Yasatzu, a young, female Israeli-Ethiopian soldier. Intended both as a vehicle of mourning as well as protest against hit-and-run accidents, the rabbis came to honour the memory of Yasatzu.

So perhaps instead of focusing on ‘whodunit’, we should look at how this ancient ritual can teach us something about navigating communal life today. Margalit, I know that in your Bat Mitzvah D’var Torah, you will be looking at the issue of gun violence. While I want to whet people’s appetites for your teaching tomorrow, I also don’t want to give away any spoilers! Suffice to say that you will bring your unique Torah of social justice to bear on the connectivity between Parashat Shoftim and one of the pressing issues of our current timeframe.

The legally intricate and philosophically lofty themes of Parashat Shoftim are apt for this month of Elul, as we move closer to the High Holidays. This is the time for us as a community as well as individuals to take stock, regardless of our politics and positions, and to start the conversations that we may be shy about having. We are all responsible for shaping a communal experience that is inclusive as well as honest. Whodunit is besides the point; how we move on in a spirit of self-reflection, is all the more relevant. May each of us embrace a spirit of reflection, of t’shuvah, during this time and may God give us the strength to be both more accountable as well as more active in the redemption of our world.


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