Sunday, August 16, 2015

Shoftim: Will Breaking a Cow's Neck Suffice for Allowing God's People to Die?

Shoftim

A man was starving in Capri;
He moved his eyes and looked at me;
I felt his gaze, I heard his moan,
And knew his hunger as my own.
--Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), “Renascence”

This parsha/Torah reading deals with appointing judges and magistrates in every Israelite city. “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20), Moses commands the people, irrespective of class or wealth.

The most curious aspect of this parsha is the ritual of eglah arufah—the “cow whose neck is broken” (Deut. 21:1-9). Should an anonymous corpse be discovered in a field between towns, the elders and law-enforcement officials of both towns are to measure the distance from the crime scene to their boundaries, in order to decide which municipality is responsible for the death. Then, the officials of that town are to bring forth a cow, lead it into a ditch flowing with water, and there break its neck. After, they are to wash their hands over it, to symbolically show that their hands are not guilty of the blood of the murdered person.

According to the Talmud, this practice was, indeed, carried out until the 1st Century CE, when political persecutions and internecine rivalries increased assassinations to an unmanageable level, and it was abandoned, presumably because there were too many homicides and not enough cows to go around—I am being ironic, here. The ceremony symbolizes that all of the human community is, indeed, responsible for one another’s maintenance and welfare.

In our Digital Age, the world grows smaller and smaller, yet we fail to acknowledge our responsibility for one another. Religious fanatics machine-gun civilians in the name of their dark, bloody god; insane infants reduce to rubble the treasures of History. Desperate refugees take to the seas aboard leaky vessels, after paying blood-ransom to human wolves.

People die, while we sip coffee, munch croissants, and speed off to work or play.

We are all one human family and should behave as such: in the words of Millay, “No hurt I did not feel, no death/ That was not mine; mine each last breath/ That, crying, met an answering cry/ From the compassion that was I.”

Scientists and philosophers call this interdependency the “Butterfly Effect,” after a 1952 science fiction story of Ray Bradbury’s, “A Sound of Thunder.” In it, safari hunters from the year 2055 journey back in time for the ultimate big-game experience: that of stalking and killing a Tyrannosaurus Rex, king of dinosaurs. Eckels, the hapless big-game hunter, loses his nerve as the beast is charging, and fearfully stumbles off the path; Travis, the experienced guide, kills it in his place. Shortly thereafter, a huge tree falls on the T-Rex’s body, which was meant to happen: by shooting the animal shortly before the branch falls, they have not altered the past in any way. Still, what of Eckels’s misstep?

On the way back, the hunters are horrified to discover a tiny butterfly mashed into the mud on Eckels’s boot. They wonder what effect this will have on civilization, so far into the future. I will not ruin the story’s conclusion for you—the story is available on the web, if you type in its title—but will say only that every human action has consequences—“wheels within wheels, and fires within fires!” (Arthur Miller, The Crucible)—and that we are all truly interdependent.

That is why it was so crucial for the strange, but seminal, ceremony of the eglah arufah to take place: to show that all life—not just human—on this planet is holy, and that we are all interlinked, in far more ways than we can ever comprehend. Or, perhaps, no cow is needed: we have human sacrifices enough. Enough!