Taking Responsibility: Emmett Till and Egel Arufa

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.

This year when reading about the Egel Arufa my attention went to the wadi. What is the significance of the sacrifice of this heifer being on a wadi “which is not tilled or sown”?  What is the meaning of the location being untouched?

I was thinking about this recently when listening to an NPR program on Emmett Till. Emmett Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955) was a 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. The brutality of his murder and the fact that his killers were acquitted drew attention to the long history of violent persecution of African Americans in the United States. The Till case lives on in our national memory for all of the reasons that we have the ritual of the Egel Arufa in our Torah portion. No one has truly taken responsibility for the death of this young black child. Till posthumously became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. The legacy of this case has become symbolic for all of the thousands of people who have been killed in this country due to systemic racism.

The Till case was back in the news recently when fraternity brothers of Kappa Alpha Order, an organization that glorifies the Confederate South, at the University of Mississippi posed with guns at the bullet-pocked marker of the sign by the river where Till’s body was found.

Three college students posed in front of the Emmett Till memorial sign in Tallahatchie County, Miss. Instagram/Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

Instagram/Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

The symmetry was too poignant to not point out. They wanted wanted to uproot Tills memory by shooting at the sign. While they have been suspended from the fraternity, still no one ever stood on the “non tilled” wadi to take responsibility for the death that happened 64 years ago.

So, why does this ritual of the Egel Arufa need to be done on land “which is not tilled or sown”? Rashi comments on this that the land is hard. It sounds like we needed to do this ritual on bedrock. We needed to strip everything else away, take responsibilty for a death, and from there we will have a sound foundation to rebuild society. It is clear from the case of Till in America, that we have never truly done the work of getting down to the “not tilled or sown” foundation of racism in this country. Until we get to the bottom of this injustice will fester. Until we do this “hard” work and take responisilbity for what has happened we will never build a just society.

-for another reading of the Egel Arufa check out this blog post on Apocalypse Now

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