Sunday, July 15, 2007

Killing People: A Matot-Mas‘ei DvarTorah

(as given by me at shalashudiss yesterday)

This Last week's double parsha begins began, after a short discussion of vows, with the War Against Midyan. God told Moshe to avenge the Israelites on the Midyanites for what the people of Midyan did when they teamed up with Mo’av and Bil‘am a few parshas ago in order to harm Beney Yisra’eil. And so Moshe commands the people to exact God's vengeance on their enemy, and they go out to do battle.

They go out to war and they kill all the men, and drag the women and children back to the encampment, along with all of their stuff. When they arrive, though, Moshe was enraged, and yelled at the leaders of the army — "you kept the females alive?!" And so they then go on to kill all the adult women and the little boys.

When I read this story, I was literally nauseous. And all the fancy explanations, all the highfalutin' apologetics, flew out the window. Because this is human life we're talking about. And the only explanation that still stood at the end was that God must know what God is doing. If you believe that God creates the world, weaves history, inspects hearts and minds, then you have to trust that God knows what needs to be done. And that Moshe, who talked directly to God — although he did make a few mistakes in his career — can be trusted to know what God wants.

Take that image, that queasy feeling, put it aside.

In the second half of the double parsha, in Mas‘ey, there's another discussion of killing — the laws of premeditated and accidental homicide. God tells Moshe to appoint cities of refuge, so that a murderer who took a life unintentionally, can flee there. The term used for the accidental killer is רוצח מכה נפש בשגגה. One more time is the term מכה used — during the process of judgement between the killer and the victim's blood-avenger. Every other time the killer is mentioned, though, the term used is רוצח. Murderer. The community will save the רוצח... But if the רוצח leaves the city of refuge... If the blood-avenger murders the רוצח... The רוצח may return to his territory...

The prototypical example of a רוצח בשגגה is someone swinging an axe. They're cutting wood, and somehow don't pay attention to the fact that the axe is broken, or weak — and in the process of swinging the axe, the axe head flies off the handle and chops someone's head off. The killer isn't an 'accidental killer' — the Torah only calls them that one and a half times — but an unintentional murderer. You don't just get off because "too bad, accidents happen." If you kill someone, even if you didn't mean it, you're a murderer. A רוצח. Human life is just that important. It's not something that you can play around with, not something that you can get out of simply because you didn't mean it.

Take that image, the unintentional murderer swinging their axe, put it aside.

Right now we're in the Three Weeks between the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av. A time of communal mourning for the Destruction of the Beit Hamiqdash, the Destruction of Israelite Independence in our Land, and the Exile in which we still live. They say that what caused the second Temple to be destroyed was שנאת חינם — baseless hatred, free hatred, worthless hatred. When I look around the world, I see a lot of hatred. And this hatred is usually expressed in words.

People say things, very serious things; they make statements all the time, and I don't know if they really think about what they're saying. Because either they're not really thinking about what they're saying, and using words that if they thought before they spoke, they would realize shouldn't be used; or they actually do mean what they say, and that's even more frightening.

For example, the word עמלק. People throw this word around like it just meant "slimy bastard" &mdash but ‘amaleiq has very serious halakhic implications. It has a definition! When you call a group of people who you've never met personally עמלק, what you are saying is that you believe that you have not just the right, but the obligation, to go out and slaughter them. Men and women. Combatants and noncombatants. Children. Babies. All of them. Because that is what עמלק means. We give words meaning, and so we can't claim that we didn't mean what we said. And it's not like people only call anonymous foreign masses ‘Amaleiq — leaders of communities have thrown that word against others in their own community who have nothing more than an ideological difference of opinion with them! For this you threaten the lives of them and their children?!

Another recent example which has been going around the Internet lately — an incident where one Israeli government official called another one a Nazi (simply because he was trying to follow the law and do the right thing, as opposed to what the other guy wanted), and because the one who was called a Nazi lost his family in the Holocaust, he slapped him. The word Nazi means something. It means something very specific. Like ‘Amaleiq, it's not a word that you can just throw around as if it meant nothing more than 'slimy bastard' — and it even seems that the guy who used the word knew what he was saying, and meant it!

A third example, which may have occured a while ago, but I only heard about it recently. I don't keep up much on politics (because it hurts my soul) but it seems that an American political pundit or commentator said that a certain politician deserves to be blown up in a terror attack. I assume this is because they think the politician is too soft on terrorism, but please! Come on! To actually say that you want someone to get blown apart in a terrorist attack? Once again, either they weren't thinking about what they were saying, or they were thinking, and inexplicably decided to say it anyway.

Words have meaning, and you can't ignore that. If you call someone עמלק, you are saying that all the halakhic definitions and ramifications of that status apply to them. If you claim that someone deserves to be killed, you really are saying that that person deserves to have their life taken away.

Hhazal say that כל המלבין פני חברו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים. One who embarrasses another (such that the blood drains from their face) — it's as if they killed them and spilled their blood.

But words can kill in much more than metaphorical ways.

The pen is mightier than the sword because the pen drags the sword along with it in its wake.

Just open up the newspaper and you'll see people killing with their words. Every day, people make statements. "So-and-so is a rodeif." "So-and-so is an infidel." "So-and-so deserves to die."

And people take these statements at face value! After all, if words mean anything, why would you assume that people don't mean what they say?

And if you open up the newspaper, you can see every day people accepting their own, or other people's statements, and acting on them. Killing people. Hurting people. They've come to the conclusion that someone deserves to die, and they take the completely logical step of remaking the world into how it's supposed to be.

So, I guess the moral of the story is this:

Be very careful what you do. When you're swinging that axe, pay attention. Pay attention to whether it's built correctly, whether it's in good working order, whether you know who and what is around you. Because if it breaks and hurts someone, it's your fault.

And be very careful what you say. Words have meaning. And when it comes to human life, just as in action, words have very serious consequences. We need to be very very careful never to act or speak as if we know who deserves to live and who deserves to die. Because someone — whether us or someone else — may very well take our words at their meaning.

We are not God.
We are not the Creator of Worlds.
We cannot weigh reality in the palm of our hand.
We do not know who deserves to live and who deserves to die.

And we are not Moshe.
We do not speak to God face-to-face.
We do not see the universe through pure God-colored lenses.
God does not tell us the contents of God's heavenly record books.

And we are not Pinehhas either.
According to Hhazal, Pinehhas did not act on his own initiative a few parshas ago, when he followed Zimri and Kozbi into the chamber, and speared them through. He asked Moshe. He asked the prophet. He asked the person with the direct line to God.

Because human life is deadly serious.

We have to be very very careful.

If you think you know who deserves to live and who deserves to die, and you use words, use language, to impose your evaluation on reality, you have already impacted on human life. Whether or not anyone acts on your words.

And if you think you know who deserves to live and who deserves to die, you're wrong. It doesn't matter how right you think you are. You're wrong. Because you're not Pinehhas. And you're not Moshe. And you're certainly not God.

In the end, just like our poor lumberjack negligently swinging their axe, you're nothing but a רוצח.


Blogger Ezer K'negdo said...

What a moving drash. you have not just intelligence and thoughtfulness, you yourself choose your words carefully and use them effectively and with great meaning. This parasha is particularly difficult in that, really, God directs moshe to direct the Israelites to slaughter all of those innocent people? Nauseous doesn't even begin to describe it for me. And, unlike many other drashot I have read on this parasha, you make no excuses, neither do you try to explain it away. you struggle honestly with the ideas and faith issues. as you and i come from different sides of the ideological spectrum, my conclusion (resolution?) concerning the murder of innocents is slightly different from yours. but the core of what you are saying resonates with me in a very deep way, especially as the mother of three children: that we need to be aware that our words are just as, if not more powerful than our might. that no matter how something happened, accident or not, we need to take responsibility for ourselves, our actions and our words. no excuses, no explaining things away. and we are not moshe, we are not God. and we are not entitled to act as if we are.

we cannot begin to understand this heinous event that happened thousands of years ago. but we can take responsibility for what is happening now, and our actions now.

thank you for your words.

7/16/2007 8:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautifully put.

7/16/2007 9:11 AM  
Anonymous Mar Gavriel said...

I like the trop in 31:38-40:

וְהַבָּקָר--שִׁשָּׁה וּשְׁלֹשִׁים, אָלֶף; וּמִכְסָם לַיי, שְׁנַיִם וְשִׁבְעִים. The last clause is divided up just with one melekh, a tifhha. Relatively boring, matter of fact. Such-and-such many heads of cattle, and the tribute donated from them to YHWH.

וַחֲמֹרִים, שְׁלֹשִׁים אֶלֶף וַחֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת; וּמִכְסָם לַיי, אֶחָד וְשִׁשִּׁים. Same trop as before: Such-and-such many asses, and the tribute donated from them to the YHWH.

But then--

וְנֶפֶשׁ אָדָם, שִׁשָּׁה עָשָׂר אָלֶף; וּמִכְסָם, לַיי--שְׁנַיִם וּשְׁלֹשִׁים, נָפֶשׁ. Because of the extra word nafesh, soul(s), there needs to be an extra melekh in the trop: one tifhha on the word ushloshim, and one zaqeif on the Divine Name. The trop singles out the specialness of human life, by adding that extra melekh (tifhha), and even a mishne to that melekh (the pashta on u-mikhsam).

7/16/2007 10:20 AM  
Anonymous Elie said...

Terrific, meaningful and very timely post. I have always felt the same - words can hurt a lot, often much more than "sticks and stones".


7/16/2007 12:55 PM  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Indeed, there's way too much sinat chinam/baseless hatred going around. Thank you for this thoughtful Three Weeks post.

You said: "When you call a group of people who you've never met personally עמלק, what you are saying is that you believe that you have not just the right, but the obligation, to go out and slaughter . . . All of them. Because that is what עמלק means." I strongly recommend that you read Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot's "Amalek: Ethics, Values, and Halakhic Development," published in the anthology "Tanakh Companion: The Book of Samuel." He has some very interesting things to say, based on the Rambam's interpretation, on the subject of the obligation--or, under some circumstances, the lack thereof--to slaughter the Amaleks.

7/16/2007 5:21 PM  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Oops, sorry about the grammatical error: That should be either Amalek or Amalekites.

7/16/2007 5:23 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


thanks so much, and thanks for all your thoughts and additions!




great point on the trop there (pun intended)... i need to get out my notes on trop-parsing.




you're welcome!
i've seen that book, and almost bought it once or twice. although i doubt that when someone calls someone else ‘Amaleiq they mean it in a "but you don't actually have to kill them" kind of way. it's usually said in anger.
"amaleks" is fine, reminds me of "daleks" :-P (which i, btw, know nothing about)

7/16/2007 11:22 PM  
Blogger Yehu said...

Ouch... seldom can one make me nearly come to tears... The most terrible thing about it is that we're all in this together, and people all to often forget that.

Actually RE "Nazi" - when threwn around liberally it demeans the meaning of that word. Like the F word is so widely used that it loses its punch a a curse.

And also, in many occasions people can twist and turn words, without outright saying these piercing flame-throwing words, they weasel-word themselves around the issue, equating their political opponents with the terrorists or nazis. Some of these words had already had a de-facto effect, such as in the case of the Marines in the Haditha case, or the border patrol agents. It's especially disturbing that Jewish - especially Orthodox - rabbis are silent, because for centuries we were victims of blood labels and false accusations - and now that it happens to others we are silent. (Not to say that these guys are all necessarily innocent - but they were automatically inculpated by the press & "justice" system.)

7/17/2007 8:11 AM  
Blogger Yehu said...

BTW - 2 things about this parsh I never understood (actually about the 1st thing I think I have a hazy idea for an answer - but still far from complete)

a) "eilu hdvarim.... bein ish leishto" i.e. after the holches of nozir the posuk tells us that "these are the things [=rules, guidelines] between man and his woman..." Huh? that's all what marriga is all about? The halocha that a husban can annul his wife's vow during the day? That's all? What about mutual respect, raising kids, another two million haloches and dteails, what about all the frying pans that hit my head all those years....?

My hazy idea is that somehow this is all related to the words we utter and the way we talk to each other... ummmm, around these lines.

b) "blood will not be attoned but by the blood of its spiller" How so? This is one I never understood. Capital punishment is a very heavy & loaded subject, and there are many argumanets in favor of it, but from a human POV I see no logic in this specific reason. Any ideas anyone?

7/17/2007 8:18 AM  
Blogger Noyam said...


Great follow-up to the Eliyahu post. Not just the idea, but your presentation as well.

7/18/2007 4:38 PM  
Blogger Moshe Y. Gluck said...

Very well said.

7/19/2007 12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you notice that Torah does not actually tell us if Jews followed Moshe's order and killed the women and the male children?

7/19/2007 5:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't disagree with your specifics, but the following must be said:

The Nazis, Hamas and the rest, and the Iranians ARE all Amalek, by "virtue" of wanting to annihilate Jews -- men, women, and children! Even so, Israel targets only their combatants, who effectively use the surrounding "civilian" population as hostages condemned to die with those combatants by those combatants for the propaganda value against Israel.

Jews are today deemed the descendants of dogs and monkeys. We live in a world where Jews are once again being demonized and smeared with all the evils of the world and our (not only "Israelis" or "settlers") right to exist is being insidiously chipped away by modern Amaleks and their (perhaps) well-meaning, politically correct useful-idiot fellow travelers. (That some of these fellow travelers consider themselves "good" Jews dismays me more than most other misfortunes.) Thanks to their success, living in this world as a Jew is once again as fraught with danger as it was decades ago. A full decade before 9/11, a Jew was stabbed to death in Brooklyn (by Americans) because he was there and was visibly Jewish.

I, myself, am the descendant of sadistically, viciously murdered European Jews, murdered with the collusion and the indifference of the rest of the world. I will not be lectured to by anyone, whether nominally or substantially Jewish, about the necessity to defend myself and other Jews against the very real threats against us. If there is any energy left over after that, only then will I consider being gracious to those like the Palestinians.

7/20/2007 8:44 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


maybe you're right about that 'it's all about words and promises' thing!

not sure about the שופך דם האדם באדם דמו יישפך part... it's definitely the view of the Torah, but i haven't figured out whether it's just supposed to be obvious, or if it's more complicated that that.

Noyam and Moshe:


Anonymous 7/19:

Bemidbar 31:35 in the accounting of the spoils would seem to indicate it.
Another point of omission that a friend who was staying by me for Shabbos pointed out was that it doesn't say that God told Moshe to tell the people that.

7/20/2007 8:53 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

what i don't understand is how some people are literally willing to bet their soul for the right to kill babies.

7/20/2007 8:54 AM  
Blogger Yehu said...

Steg - the even more obscure part is that the posuk says that it will not be atoned TO THE EARTH! (for the murderer's death alone is not atonement. B/f someone is executed he's supposed to do tshuva.

"what i don't understand is how some people are literally willing to bet their soul for the right to kill babies." You mean abortion? Not that simple either, if you askin me. Although in the bottom line I'm more inclined in favor of execution, I'd go less hard on abortion.

7/23/2007 5:37 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

"kill babies" = part of the defining features of identifying a group as עמלק; kill 'em all.

7/23/2007 6:40 PM  
Blogger Yehu said...


Who's the Amalek of the week?

7/24/2007 3:52 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

no one new this week as far as i know... that was an old peeve from a few months ago.

7/24/2007 7:14 PM  
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