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,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

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.

Powerful Holy Words

Powerful Holy Words 

Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.  -Pearl Strachan Hurd

PowerofWordsThe Torah takes the spoken word seriously. Very seriously. It dedicates a whole chapter to the laws of vows and if and when they might be annulled. There is an entire tractate of the Talmud that deals with this single issue.

The Sfat Emet in 5634 (1874) explains that the power of our speech is a particular strength of the Jewish people. Our words can turn ideas into reality. Specifically, by just uttering words of Torah, one has the capacity to connect directly with God. That is the reason for the biblical command to recite the “Shma Yisrael” prayer twice a day, as well as all the other prayers and blessings that the sages commanded. This power converts our wishes and requests into real blessings and bounty.

However, there is a caveat. It all depends on the words we choose. When we use holy words, when we use words of blessing, of peace, of faith, of Torah, then the transformation to reality can occur. However, when we waste our words on mundane matters, frivolous matters, lowly matters, inappropriate matters, we are squandering that divine gift.

The Sfat Emet concludes that in accordance with how we watch and protect our speech, so too is the measure of power that we have to see our hopes and dreams come to fruition.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Ana Duchits. She has that power.

 

A Leader’s Vow

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/matot-a-leaders-vow/

Baal Haturim Numbers: Matot

A Leader’s Vow

 Vows are made in storms and forgotten in calm weather. -Thomas Fuller

yiftahs daughter

One of the more disturbing stories in the Bible is that of the Israelite leader, Yiftah, in the Book of Judges. He was an outcast, but apparently with some leadership qualities. He attracted and led a band of ruffians. When the people of Israel are threatened, the elders turn to Yiftah for military assistance.

Before battle Yiftah takes an oath, that if God gives him victory over his enemies, in thanksgiving, Yiftah will sacrifice to God the first thing to greet him upon his successful return home. Perhaps Yiftah imagined a lamb would run to him, or some other livestock would cross his path. However, upon Yiftah’s successful victory and subsequent return, none other than his beloved daughter, his only child, runs out to greet her victorious father. Yiftah tears his clothing in anguish, and the simplest reading of the verses indicate that he does kill his daughter as a human sacrifice to God.

The Baal Haturim on Numbers 30:2 explains that it is the nature of Israelite leaders to make vows and call for divine intervention when their people are in trouble. However, all the Rabbis are in agreement that Yiftah erred grievously, first, in making such a poorly worded vow, and second, in fulfilling such a dastardly act that is abhorrent to God. There is a procedure in Jewish law for rescinding poorly made vows that Yiftah should have availed himself of.

May we avoid vows. But if we make them, we should make them wisely and fulfill them honorably.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Miriam Cohen of Melbourne. May any and all vows be filled with blessings.

 

 

After the Foxhole

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/matot-after-the-foxhole/

Netziv Numbers: Matot

After the Foxhole

Vows are made in storms and forgotten in calm weather.” -Thomas Fuller

We understand the concept of there being no atheists in a foxhole, of the rediscovery of God in the midst of danger. However, what is curious is our attitudes once the threat or need has passed. There is an example of a man late for an important meeting, urgently seeking a parking spot. He prays to God: “God, please help me find a spot and I promise I’ll give a thousand dollars to charity.” He keeps looking and prays even more fervently. “God! Help me with a spot and I’ll give two thousand dollars to charity!” Suddenly, a spot opens up. The man parks and then calls out to God: “God, don’t worry about it. I found a spot on my own!”

The instinctive search for God in times of distress seems to be counterbalanced by the just as natural tendency to forget about God once things are on an even keel. The Netziv on 30:2 warns about this phenomena when the Torah discusses the theme of vows. He explains that it is normal to make vows when distressed and just as normal for those earnest, heartfelt vows to slip our minds just moments later.

But God remembers the vow. According to Jewish law, the promises we make are binding. It has the weight and strength of a contract. We are morally obliged to fulfill our word even if it was uttered in a time of crisis. We must beware of oath-breaking.

May we feel free to call out to God in need, be careful with what we say, and have the perception, memory and will to deliver on our promises.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the victims of the AMIA terrorist bombing in Buenos Aires, twenty years ago, this week. And to the continued safety and protection of all those under threat in Israel.

Jealous and Vengeful God

[First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/matot-jealous-and-vengeful-god/]

Ibn Ezra Numbers: Matot

Jealous and Vengeful God

“I had rather be a toad, and live upon the vapor of a dungeon than keep a corner in the thing I love for others uses.”-William Shakespeare

There is a dark and dangerous side to our God and beware all who may unleash it. We believe in His mercy, but also in His justice. There is a divine fairness in His eternal plans that no human will ever fathom. However, we also witness His wrath, His anger, the death and destruction he lets loose upon the earth.

In the Bible we see two general victims of His wrath. Perhaps ironically, He is most angry at the people of Israel. Every infraction, every betrayal of the ancient covenant brings hardship, poverty, famine, conquerors, exile, persecution and even death. But there is also the element of mercy. He punishes Israel but does not obliterate Israel. The second types of victim of God’s castigation are those who hurt Israel. There God has shown less restraint.

During our desert wanderings, the Midianite nation had participated in the enticement of the men of Israel. Israel turned to the worship of other gods, and God was swift with his response, the death by plague of 24,000 of Israel. But for the Midianites, God almost wipes them off the map. Every single male Midianite was killed and almost all of the females as well. Ibn Ezra on Numbers 31:3 explains that God commanded vengeance upon both His honor as well as Israel’s. God saw it as one and the same. Like a jealous husband, God takes deep affront at both the seduction and injury of his people. If we think of all the empires, regimes and peoples that sought to harm the nation of Israel and wonder how many are still around, history will provide a very short list.

May the list get shorter.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To hateful regimes of the world. You will be just a memory.

 

 

 

Individuality in the Crowd

Ohr Hachayim Numbers: Matot

Individuality in the Crowd

I have a visceral aversion to crowds. I’m not sure where it stems from. Perhaps the days of getting trampled at protests, with only bruised toes and ribs to show for my idealism. Perhaps it’s the anonymity in the horde. Or perhaps the mindless force of a mob.

[The rest of this Torah Insight is at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/individuality-in-the-crowd/]

Wealthy Arrogance

Kli Yakar Numbers: Matot

 

Wealthy Arrogance 

The Children of Israel are about to enter the Promised Land. The leaders of two of the tribes, Reuven and Gad, approach Moses. We are told that they were wealthy with cattle, presumably their share of the massive spoils of the just-finished battle with Midian. They suggest Moses should let them inherit the land they had conquered from the impromptu battles with the Amorites on the eastern side of the Jordan River.

Moses is shocked by the request. Had they learned nothing from the sin of the spies? Did they wish to bring punishment and destruction upon all of Israel for their recalcitrance, for their refusal to enter the long sought-after land? The two tribes offer that they will lead their brothers in the conquest of Canaan, leaving their women, children and cattle behind in the pasture-rich land they saw and rejoin them once the conquest is complete. The Tribe of Gad leads the discussions with Moses. Moses finally agrees.

The Kli Yakar is troubled by Gad’s display of leadership. Reuven was the eldest of the tribes. Gad was amongst the younger ones. The Kli Yakar states that Gad was out of place in speaking before the eldest. He explains that it was because of their wealth. Gad was wealthier than Reuven and apparently one of the wealthiest tribes. That gave them the confidence and the gall to speak out of turn. To push themselves ahead of those wiser and more learned than themselves. To force themselves into situations that were inappropriate and that would lead to anguish in future generations.

May we learn to speak in turn, from both wealth and humility.

 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Bentzi

 

Dedication 

To the memory of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. We were just reminded of my family’s visit to him 21 years ago, which was really cool.