On Capital Punishment

On Capital Punishment

 Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest. -W. H. Auden

God is very clear on where He stands on the topic of capital punishment. Even though God commands Do Not Murder (as opposed to Do Not Kill) in the Ten Commandments, there is a long list of sins (murder among them) that God prescribes the death penalty for. Already to Noah and his sons God warns: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made He man.”(Genesis 9:6)

The Rabbis however explained that in most of those cases, it is actually quite rare for the death penalty to be carried out. The guilty party needs to have been given an explicit and detailed warning before committing the sin; there needs to have been two valid witnesses to the sin and a variety of other judicial requirements. No video or circumstantial evidence suffice.

The more bloodthirsty among us may feel that this practical suspension of justice is unfair. How is it that all these sinners and murderers can roam around free and unpunished? The Talmud tells us not to worry. God has his way of inflicting the right punishment on each deserving individual, at the right time and in the right form, if the human court is unable to carry out its duty.

The more merciful among us may feel that punishment for crimes, even one as odious as murder, is unwarranted, and that the death penalty especially has no place in modern civilization.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 35:33 explains part of the rationale for the death penalty:

“A human society that does not regard the blood of each of its members as sacred, one that does not take up the cudgel for innocent human blood that has been spilled negates the very purpose for which the forces of earth operate.”

“The hypocrisy can be purged from the land only if the innocent blood that has been spilled, and the human being who has lost his life as a result, finds an advocate in the society that survives him and the murderer is made to atone for his deed by dying at the hands of that advocate, thus losing his own life, which he has forfeited by his crime. For since he has spilled the blood of his fellow man, his own blood no longer has a right to life; he has forfeited his own right to existence. And to tolerate the continued existence of one who knowingly and deliberately murdered a fellow man would be a travesty on the dignity of man, who was made in the image of God.”

May all murderers be brought to justice, whether earthly or divine, and may we see justice reign in the land.

Shabbat Shalom,



On the confluence of the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate Sanhedrin that we have started this week in the Daf Yomi cycle, with Maimonides’ Laws of Sanhedrin that we are in the midst of in the Rambam Yomi cycle – both of which deal with the subject of capital punishment.

It’s not the journey, it’s the purpose

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/masai-its-not-the-journey-its-the-purpose/

Netziv Numbers: Masai

It’s not the journey, it’s the purpose

There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but only one view.  -Harry Millner

In my mad rush to book a last minute flight to Israel, I had to study multiple itineraries, websites, schedules and jump through too many web hoops. Flights that I finally managed to reserve suddenly changed prices and eventually disappeared altogether. Reservations that were made were then canceled by the airline. Finally, I got a flight which, as of this writing, I hope will still see me through on my journey to the Holy Land.

Netziv on Numbers 33:1 notes that the term “their journeys” is repeated three times at the introduction of the summary of the stops which Israel made since leaving Egypt until they were about to enter Canaan. He explains that each repetition represents a different purpose for the journey, that the purpose defines the journey and each journey or path requires a separate introduction.

The first leg of the Israelite journey was the Exodus from Egypt with a stopover at Mount Sinai to receive the divine revelation of the Torah, with the final purpose of entering the land of Canaan. However, the mission of the spies went awry and doomed the tribes of Israel to wander in the desert for forty years. The wandering was the second leg of their journey. The third and final leg of the journey was the resumption of the initial purpose – to enter the land of Israel.

Sometimes the journey is defined by its purpose, and to fulfill it, you have to reach the destination. The journey itself becomes secondary.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Dani Baruch of Adventour, for helping me with my journey.

Pillars of the Universe

Kli Yakar Numbers: Masai

Pillars of the Universe

“Duct tape is like the force. It has a light side, a dark side, and it holds the universe together.” Carl Zwanzig

What is the basis of creation? What keeps our world afloat? Ancient myths believed in a giant turtle that swam through the currents of the cosmos, upon which the earth rested. Scientists from not long ago believed in an invisible ‘ether’ that the planet moved through. Jewish tradition believes that it is the righteous that hold our world together and keep things going. 

“And they camped upon the Jordan, from Bet Hayeshimot until Avel Hashitim.” Numbers 33:49

The Kli Yakar reads meaning into the names given for the Israelite encampment at the end of their forty years of wandering. Just a few verses earlier, the Torah mentions the death of Aaron the High Priest, who died in the Hebrew month of Av, a month that contains sadness and mourning, the month that starts this Monday.

“Hayeshimot” refers to “shmamah” (destruction), while “Avel” (mourning) “Hashitim” (of the cedars) refers to the loss of the righteous that are compared to the cedars, the tall majestic trees of the world. The verse foreshadows the destruction of the Temple(s) in the month of Av which is equated to the death of the righteous.

The Kli Yakar takes the comparison further. At the destruction of the Temple the heavens shook and the earth quaked. It was a catastrophe of epic proportions which altered and lessened all of existence. So too the death of the righteous. When they pass away, creation trembles. The righteous are the very foundations of reality. Their loss loosens the power that binds the world together.

May we have the merit to identify them, treasure them and support them.

Shabbat Shalom,



In memory of Rabbi Yehuda Amital of blessed memory, Founder and Head of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut. This week commemorates one year since his passing. The universe shook that day and reality seems ever so tenuous since.


The Next Leader

Numbers Fiction: Masai

The Next Leader (inspired by Numbers Chapter 34, Masai)

“You’re the one, Elizafan.” Chever slapped Elizafan on the back as they headed towards Moses and the Assembly. They walked along the wide, dry Moabite plain, overlooking the Jordan River to the west. “Surely he’s going to name you Prince of Zevulun.”

“Chever, please. Stop saying that. If he names me, I’ll be greatly honored, but I think it’s in bad taste to discuss it beforehand.” Elizafan’s eyes darted across the converging crowd, wondering if anyone had overheard them.

“Elizafan, you’re the natural choice. Wealthy, from a distinguished family. A war hero. A High Judge. Handsome, popular, a natural leader.” People in the crowd craned their necks to look at Chever.

“Stop it, Chever. If I am named, all and well; but let’s stop harping on it. Moses will declare the best person.”

“I think it will be Raui for Zevulun,” and old man croaked.

“Raui? Who’s Raui?” Chever hissed back.

“Why, Raui is a great and holy man, not like the peacock Elizafan at your side. Just your strut announces overweening pride. Raui is my bet. He’s learned and humble and patient. Wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“Nonsense, old man,” Chever sneered. “A sweet sage might be nice for dispensing advice from his tent, but we need a leader who will conquer Canaan. A man who will stand at the head of our troops, look the enemy in the eye and attack. Yes, it needs pride.”

“Pfah,” the old man spat at the ground. “You young ones always think you know best. Well, we’ll see soon enough who’s right.” The old man turned his neck toward the platform in the middle of the assembly. Moses and the Elders were stepping up to the long, low wooden structure.

“Let’s get away from this relic.” Chever pulled Elizafan by the arm into the thickening crowd.

“I know Raui,” Elizafan whispered. “He is a great man. The old man may be right.”

“What? You think a timid scholar would make a better leader than you?”

“He is wise and brave and many seek his council. I would follow him.”

“It’s one thing to give good advice. It’s another matter altogether to lead men into battle, to judge them, to be accountable to the Children of Israel. I would not be so quick to dismiss yourself from this possibility.”

“There is nothing to dismiss!” Elizafan stomped his foot on the dry Moabite plain. A small cloud of dust enveloped his sandaled foot. “In a moment, Moses will announce the new Princes. The Princes of Israel who will lead the Tribes into Canaan. I won’t lie to you. It would be a great honor that I am not sure I am worthy of. But there is nothing to discuss or dismiss. I have no weight in this matter. God who knows the hearts of men will decide. He will tell Moses. Moses will let us know. That is what he announced. Now for God’s sake stop talking about it and let us calm down.”

“You see Elizafan, you’re a natural. I would even follow you back to Egypt.”

“Enough!” Elizafan slapped Chever across the face. “You dare hint at our sins, even in jest? Is your memory so short that you forget the rebels that cried for the very same thing – to return to Egypt? Chever, your mind has been addled by the upcoming succession. Do you hope to be at the side of a future leader? Is that why you fawn and flatter to no end? Or are you truly my friend giving me encouragement? If you are my friend, the best thing you can do is stop talking on the matter. What will be, will be. If I am selected, I will pray that God will give me the strength and the wisdom to guide our tribe. If not, I will be relieved and give whatever assistance I can, whether it is to noble Raui or someone else. Come now, Chever. I’m sorry I slapped you, but I knew no other way to muzzle your inane blabbering. Do you forgive me?” Elizafan put out his hand.

“Yes.” Chever took the hand. “You – yes. Yes, I forgive you.” Chever rubbed his cheek and held back what he planned to say. “I am your friend. I let the excitement of you as Prince go to my head. I am sorry for infuriating you. I will speak no longer on the subject.”

“Look, there is Raui.” Elizafan motioned with his chin.

“Let’s go over to him, I’d like to meet him,” Chever said.

“Can you control yourself?” Elizafan asked.

“Yes, I promise.”

“Raui, how are you?” Elizafan bowed politely. “Please meet my friend, Chever.”

“I am well, Elizafan. It is good to meet you, Chever.”

“Honored sage.” Chever bowed. “Who do you think Moses will select for Zevulun.”

“Ah, that is the question on everyone’s mind, isn’t it? It is hard to say. We are blessed with many great men. To whom will this doom go? Who will bear the burden of an entire tribe? Who will have the glory, the temptations of power and authority? Who will age before his time? Who will deal with the incessant complaints of a stubborn people? Who is worthy? Who has the strength?”

Raui looked deeply into Chever’s eyes and continued:

“Perhaps you, Chever. You strike me as a passionate man. Always concerned about your friends, your fellow tribesmen, your brothers. Perhaps that is the most important trait – a passionate care for your people. If God were to select you, I would follow you unhesitatingly. You, or whoever from my brothers God deems worthy. I do not know. I know that I am not worthy of special honor, nor do I desire it. Though I am not sure it is bad to desire honor. To lead men, to live a public life requires a certain fortitude, a certain interest and willingness to be in the public eye. Only God knows who the ideal leader is, and even then, men have consistently disappointed God. Is that helpful, Chever?”

Chever nodded silently, his mouth slightly ajar.

“I think it is you who is worthy of following,” Elizafan said.

“Thank you, Elizafan.” Raui bowed. “That is a noble sentiment. We should often think that of one another, even without the divine ordination.”

“You are correct,” Elizafan said.

“Perhaps,” Raui smiled. “It seems our questions will be shortly buried.”

The Elders finished filing onto the platform with Moses. Moses stretched his arms out over the sea of people. A wave of silence rolled over the entire assembly. Moses announced in a booming voice:

“These are the names of the men that shall take possession of the land for you: Elazar the priest, and Joshua the son of Nun. And ye shall take one prince of every tribe, to take possession of the land. And these are the names of the men: of the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Yefuneh…”

Moses continued listing the new princes.

“…and of the tribe of the children of Zebulun a prince, Elizafan the son of Parnach.”

“Congratulations, Prince Elizafan.” Raui shook his hand warmly. “I believe God and Moses have chosen wisely. We shall need your courage and fortitude in Canaan. I am at your service, should you ever wish for my help.”

“Honored Raui,” Elizafan bowed. “I am thankful of your offer and expect I may make good use of it.”

Chever hugged Elizafan. “I knew it! I…”

Elizafan raised his arm as if to slap Chever.

“I’ll behave, O Prince,” Chever grinned.

“You may yet regret our friendship,” Elizafan said. “I will put you to work.”

“You are already calling in favors?”

“Not favors. Demands. There is much we will need to do and I will put your quick and incessant tongue to productive use.”

“I am yours to command, Prince.” Chever deeply bowed.

Elizafan shuddered, both savoring and loathing the obeisance of his old friend.

* * * * * *

Biblical Source:

Numbers Chapter 34


Elizafan: Name in the text of new prince of Zevulun

Chever: close to Chaver (Friend)

Raui: Worthy