A the end of Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the Egel Arufa, the heifer. There we read:
1If, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, 2your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. 3The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke; 4and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an everflowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck. 5The priests, sons of Levi, shall come forward; for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to Him and to pronounce blessing in the name of the Lord, and every lawsuit and case of assault is subject to their ruling. 6Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. 7And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. 8Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” And they will be absolved of bloodguilt. 9Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 21: 1- 9)
It is untenable in the Torah for a murder happen without fault. The ritual of the Egel Arufa, the heifer, is an effort to reconcile society’s responsibility for that murder. It has profound implications in modern society in which we are at once more interconnected than ever online and more isolated than ever in our cubicles.
I would like to enjoin you to consider Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now as a modern perush, commentary on this Torah. The film opens, introducing Captain Benjamin L. Willard (played by Martin Sheen); a deeply troubled, seasoned special operations veteran. Willard is sent on mission deep into Cambodian jungle to find Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando), a member of the US Army Special Forces feared to have gone rogue.
After his long journey up the river, away from society, and into the heart of darkness Willard arrives to terminate the Kurtz’s command “with extreme prejudice.” The climax of the movie is when Willard enters Kurtz’s chamber with the machete in hand. This entire sequence is set to “The End” by The Doors and juxtaposed with a local ceremonial slaughtering of a water buffalo.
Lying bloody and dying on the ground, Kurtz whispers “The horror… the horror…” before expiring.
Where as in the Torah the sacrifice of the heifer seems to restore justice, Coppola asks us to see the death of the stranger far from society (Kurtz) at the same time as the society is “fixing it” through the bloody sacrifice of the water buffalo. In the wake of Vietnam Coppola was asking us to build a society in which we really take responsibility for everyone. It is hard not to hear Kurtz’s comments come as a critique of the society that send Willard to hill him. The horror… the horror.
Today, in light of what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan and the many senseless deaths that are all around us today, we have to ask ourselves what will clean our hands of these deaths? Who is responsible? How will we restore justice? What is the Egel Arufa Now?