I wanted to avoid this week’s Torah portion all together - or at least concentrate on the pretty parts.
You see, Moses is continuing his farewell speech to the Israelites. And there are lovely parts to what he has to say: he describes the seven species of fruit and grain that the Israelites will enjoy in the bountiful harvest of Canaan. There is wonder at God’s greatness, celebration of how God cared for the Israelites in the desert: how their sandals never wore out and they had plenty of manna to eat.
And then Moses comes in with a doozy…telling the Israelites that when they head into the Land of Canaan they will have to annihilate people living there who are not believers in God. They are told to show no mercy, they’ll need to burn their idols to dust. “Your God יהוה will deliver them up to you, throwing them into utter panic until they are wiped out.”
It doesn’t sound so great to the modern ear.
Now trust me, I could use every apologetic in the book to turn this stark command around. I could place it in its historical and cultural context. I could translate it differently, or avoid it altogether.
Yet there is wisdom even in the things that aren’t comfortable. So let’s provide some context, just so we can understand better.
I don’t think this text is blood thirsty as much as I think it is trying to empower the Israelite people. God’s goal is not for Israelites to become fierce warriors, waging war around the region. Instead, God wants the Israelites to understand that their upcoming campaign has moral implications.
Moses chooses to be very clear on this particular point. He says: “And when your God יהוה has thrust [your enemies] from your path, do not say to yourselves, “יהוה has enabled us to possess this land because of our virtues”; it is rather because of the wickedness of those nations that יהוה is dispossessing them before you.”
Don’t get haughty, he’s saying. This bloody military campaign isn’t to prove your virtuousness or superiority, it exists because those people are wicked.
Still problematic, I know. But the Torah is making an important point here, one we can relate to. There are bad actors in this world and their odious actions must be met with consequences. Commenting on this week’s verses, the 18th century commentator Or HaChaim leads us to Proverbs, where it says: “showing compassion to the wicked is cruelty.” I take this note to mean that some evil deserves to be punished and to let it stand would cause unnecessary harm to the victims and the moral fabric of our world.
You can imagine that this commentary hit me hard this week as the jury ordered the death penalty for the perpetrator of the Tree of Life shooting, the bloodiest anti-semitic attack on US soil. It rang in my ear: “Showing compassion to the wicked is cruelty.” You could say this modern sentencing finds weight in our tradition.
But does our tradition support the death penalty? In some places yes, and in some places no.
For example, there is the famous story where Rabbi Meir was being harassed by some thugs in his neighborhood. He prays that they may die. His wife, Beruriah, rebukes him, saying, “are you basing your death wish on the verse from Psalms where it says “may sinners perish from the land and the wicked will be no more?” Read it again, she says, it says “may SINs perish from the land and then wickedness will be no more.” Pray that they may experience repentance, she says. You don’t want to end their lives, you want to eradicate the evil inclination.
In combining this week’s Torah portion and Beruriah’s wisdom, I am hoping to show that our tradition gives us permission to wrestle morally with this week’s verdict, as I know many of us are.
The real question we should be asking, in my opinion, is not if Judaism accepts the death penalty. The real question is: what is justice?
I’ll throw a wrench into this difficult question, by pointing to one more section of this week’s Torah portion. As much as the parsha promotes violence, it also commands this:
“Do not stiffen your necks anymore…God is the great, mighty and feared God Who does not consider personal standing and accepts no bribe, but rather, a God who upholds the rights of the orphan and widow and stranger. You, too, shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Love. Who saw that coming? You shall love the stranger, uphold the rights of the vulnerable, regardless of class, race or religion.
This is the emotional paradox of our ancestors, who suffered so greatly and yet wanted to leave room in their hearts for compassion. We struggle with it too. We want to punish the guilty, we want to eradicate evil from our midst. And yet we want to be open-hearted and merciful to all humanity.
You may believe this week’s verdict was justice and I would see your point. You may be uneasy with it, or oppose it, and I would see your point as well.
I believe that as long as we struggle with the concept of justice and set it as an intention, we are living according to our tradition’s code. There isn’t an easy answer, just like this isn’t an easy parsha, but in struggling, we keep our hearts pliable and open, for the greater sin would be callousness.