George Floyd and the Axed Heifer

Whilst the streets of America burn, it is incumbent upon all of us to support one another through these dark hours with kindness and peace.

One cannot help but feel a sense of deep anger and incredulity as one watches the video filmed by an onlooker of George Floyd’s death – handcuffed and helpless with the police officer kneeling on his throat for nearly nine minutes.  Sadly, this was not unprecedented, there is a long list of names of black men from Travyon Martin to Michael Brown who died because of police negligence. It was the shooting of a 17-year-old Martin by a watch officer, and the jury’s subsequent decision to acquit his killer, that led to the creation of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

As shocking as the video was, the universal response was even more astounding. Breaking curfews and defying national guard troops, protests have continued for some seven days across some 40 American cities and spread internationally across the world. The protests in the US sadly have spiraled out of control, becoming full-fledged riots in some instances. Businesses and offices were torched, and shops were looted by rampaging angry protestors. In the immediate aftermath of the murder, many elements of the media, social activists and even politicians accused the police of waging a racial war across the country. It is the default narrative which we would naturally expect after George Floyd was murdered by a white Police officer.

As I watch these images on the news – the looting, the curfews and the protests – I struggle to make sense of what is happening to our world. I’ve heard many people have simply taken the decision to turn off the news, which led me to ponder: how could and should I respond to the current crisis in the United States? Without switching off, what am I to make of it all? As a Jew, what does my own heritage have to say about the sad scenes on American streets?

Our first response, having been persecuted and discriminated, as a nation, for centuries, must be to condemn unequivocally racism and discrimination in any shape or form. But there are some commentators that have taken a more nuanced approach in trying to make sense out of the chaos. They argue that the media and activists have upped the ante by cherry picking high-profile incidents to support their assertions.

Yet the evidence on the ground is far from conclusive. Police-caused deaths of unarmed citizens are statistically rare and correlate more to violent crime areas than to race specifically.

America is known as “the land of opportunity.” But whether it deserves this reputation is another question. Instead, we seem mesmerized by data on the distribution of incomes which show that incomes are less evenly distributed than they were 20 or 30 years ago. In 1973, the richest 5 percent of all families had 11 times as much income as the poorest one-fifth. Some twenty years later, they had almost 20 times as much. But it is not only the distribution of income that should concern us.

The American public has always cared more about equal opportunity than about equal results. The commitment to provide everyone with a fair chance to develop their own talents to the fullest is a central tenet of the American creed. This belief has deep roots in American culture and American history and is part of what distinguishes its public philosophy from that of Europe.

This will be something that will need to be carefully considered in the coming months. The perception by many African Americans that they find themselves in a poverty trap with little or no options, is a narrative that needs to change both in reality and in perception. There is a belief that a lack of concern to their plight over generations has led to a complete breakdown in trust between the establishment and the poorer parts of society. In addition, COVID-19 disproportionately affected the poor and minorities in particular, which brutally exposed the racial fault line still running through its social landscape.

In the Torah we find a section that catalogues the curious and mysterious episode called the Eglah Arufah literally “the Axed Heifer”.

This  law states  if a murder victim is found and no one knows who is responsible for the death, the elders of the nearest community shall take a heifer under specific conditions and slaughter it and then wash their hands over the head of the heifer and they have to declare, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see….then the blood shall atone for them.” 

Rashi, the medieval commentator, poses the blatant question. Are we seriously entertaining the possibility that our primary suspects are the elderly sages, the leaders of the community? What the Elders must be declaring, rather, is that they did not see the victim, or they allowed him to leave without food or escort out of the city.

It is apparent from Rashi that the Torah is equating negligence in feeding or escorting a guest with murder. We might be able to understand how a failure to provide proper sustenance to a traveler can be the indirect cause of his death; however, if all they did was neglect escorting him from the city how can they be held responsible? 

The answer is as fascinating as it is intriguing.  The guest or stranger who leaves one’s home, and is escorted by the host, though it may not physically aid them, yet it displays a deep sensitivity to the other   that one genuinely cares for them. By contrast the unaccompanied remains with a sentiment of feeling alone and being the outsider. The Torah is instructing us that simply offering moral support and displaying genuine concern for someone else’s welfare is equivocal to taking care of their physical requirements.  Had the elders not escorted their guest, it would have literally been a life and death issue.

In the coming months, there will be a tremendous amount of soul searching by individuals and society to rediscover the soul of the open and fair America which we have come to know and love. As Jews as always, we are expected to lead by example.  The Torah demands of us the highest of standards especially since we have in our own history experienced the feeling of being the stranger, the other, time and again.  With this in mind  when we do encounter  a stranger, someone that does not reside amongst us,   perhaps somebody from a different community to our own or a different culture we are expected to ensure they are  made   to feel welcome. We should be the first to display genuine care and concern for their physical and emotional wellbeing and display at all times a strong sense of dignity and respect for who they are as people.

Following the 1991 Crown Heights riots, in an encounter with David Dinkins, New York City’s first African American Mayor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe expressed his hope to Mayor Dinkins that the mayor would be able to bring peace to the city. The mayor added “to both sides”.  To which the Rebbe then corrected, explaining “we are not two sides we are ONE side. We are one people living in one city under one administration and under one G-d. May G-d protect the police and all the people in the city.” May we be given the same vision – to see the current conflict as ONE side – under the care of a loving G-d. May that mindset bring peace to our streets in the coming days.

(published Times of Israel 3/06/20)

Published by Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch

Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch is currently the Senior Rabbi in Woodside Park Synagogue – a modern orthodox thriving community of some 1,400 members. His innate love for people and his empowering brand of leadership make him a well-loved figure in Woodside Park & London.

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