Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Thursday, August 15, 2002
New feature, hopefully to appear on most Thursdays: thoughts on the week's Torah portion. Every Saturday, in the synagogue, a portion of text of the 5 Books of Moses (and a portion from the Prophetic writings with some relationship to the Torah portion or to the particular day) is read aloud, such that over the course of the year the entire Torah cycle is completed. Sections from the portion to be read on Saturday morning are read earlier in the week on Saturday afternoon, on Monday, and on Thursday. I don't want to promise that I'll be writing something every week, but hopefully I'll have the time for at least a brief thought most weeks. (And hopefully it will be of some value.)

This week's parshah is Ki Tetze, an embarrassment of riches. The parshah includes laws for the soldier to avoid sin and impurity during wartime, laws governing marriage to a woman captured in war, the law of levirate marriage, the commandment concerning a wild and drunken son, and a host of other laws such as the command to set up a parapet one's roof - more laws, I believe, than any other parshah in the Torah. I would like to focus on two laws that form an informative contrast to one another. The first is from chapter 22 verses 6 to 7 of D'varim:

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird's nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledgelings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledgelings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.

Three things jump right out about this mitzvah. First, it is a very rare command that includes within it a specific promise of reward. It is comparable in this way to the fifth commandment ("honor your father and your mother") which promises "that your days will be lengthened upon the land that the Lord, your G-d, gives you." Second, it is clearly a mitzvah that points to a larger moral message: the requirement to show compassion towards all creatures, even to small and simple ones like birds. It is related in this to another commandment, from Vayikra, prohibiting the slaughtering of an animal on the same day as its young are slaughtered. Indeed, absent such a moral message it is difficult to see what the point of the mitzvah is at all. And last, it is a command that can only be performed when circumstances present themselves: the Torah does not say, go and look for birds' nests and shoo away the mother bird before taking the eggs, but dictates a rule of conduct when one happens to come across such a nest.

Much of what appears obviously true about the mitzvah turns out to be problematic. Most problematic is the promise of reward. There is the famous story of Elisha ben Abuya, who observed a young man climb a ladder, as instructed by his father, in order to shoo away a mother bird and take her eggs. The young man falls off the ladder and dies. He dies while in the process of performing two mitzvot for which he is promised by the Torah text a reward of a long life: honoring his father and shooing away a mother bird before taking her eggs. Observing this occurrence, according to tradition, led Elisha ben Abuya into apostasy.

It is obviously problematic to associate a specific reward with performance of a specific mitzvah, and the story of Elisha ben Abuya is not the first canonical text to argue against that mechanistic view of mitzvot and their purpose; indeed, I would argue that the entire Book of Job, probably my favorite book of the Tanach, is a polemic against this view of mitzvot, against the notion that the reason to be righteous is the expectation of reward. But the sages go further than this, and appear to take issue with the second obvious aspect of the mitzvah, its moral message. Thus, in the Mishnah, in Berakhot, we read the following: "One who says, 'as far as the nest of a bird does Your mercy reach,' or 'for favors let Your Name be remembered,' or 'we give thanks, we give thanks,' must be silenced."

What is going on here? What could possibly be objectionable about these statements? They each are expressions operating within the mechanistic mitzvah-and-reward view of G-d's relation to his people: the speaker is first asking G-d to be merciful in His judgement on the speaker as He is on a bird; next the speaker promises to reward G-d for His favors done to the speaker by remembering His name; and finally the speaker attempts to win G-d's favor by being extra-effusive in his expressions of thanksgiving. There is the sense that the supplicant is not approaching G-d in a spirit of awe before the Almighty but with a sense that G-d can be manipulated - that the mitzvot can be arbitraged, if you will. Obviously, we recognize G-d's aspect of mercy, and we do in fact pray that this aspect be dominant when the time comes that we are judged. But we do not solicit that mercy with promise of praise, or with effusive thanks, or even with supplication and a reminder to the Almighty of this aspect of His judgement, but only with repentance.

Nonetheless, it would seem perverse to ignore the apparent moral lesson of the mitzvah. After all, even mitzvot that cannot and have never been observed - such as the execution of a wild and drunken son - are said to have been placed in the Torah for our moral edification. And so, presumably, we are indeed to learn from this mitzvah to be merciful even to birds, as the Almighty Himself was mindful of them when He decreed this mitzvah. And then, we get to the end of our parshah, and come upon a mitzvah with an apparently quite different moral message:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt - how, undeterred by fear of G-d, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your G-d grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your G-d is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (D'varim 25:17-19)

"Never forget" is a commandment that echoes powerfully in a post-Holocaust generation's ears, and the image of Amalek attacking the weak and weary among the camp, without pity or moral restraint, echoes powerfully today when our people in Israel are at war with terrorist organizations who behave in just such a fashion. As a technical matter, the commandment to wipe out Amalek is inoperative, just as the commandment concerning the execution of the wild and drunken son is inoperative; the Rabbis decreed that, since the Babylonian captivity, all the nations of ancient Cana'an have been intermingled, such that it is impossible to identify Amalek. A good friend, a very observant Jew, once expressed his profound relief that this was the case, since he would find it difficult to slaughter women and children as commanded by this law. Which just goes to highlight the fact that, while the rabbinic ruling may have removed the practical problem of how such a mitzvah could be performed, it did nothing to remove the moral problem of how to make sense of the mitzvah, which is still there to be studied.

The mitzvah to wipe out Amalek appears to be in precise contrast to the mitzvah to shoo away a mother bird before taking her eggs. With the mother bird, one only performs the mitzvah when circumstances permit; with Amalek, one is commanded positively to perform this mitzvah, and not to forget to do so! With the mother bird, the moral is one of mercy towards all creatures. With Amalek, we are commanded to show no mercy towards a people who has no mercy - not only on those who were guilty of the crime but on all their descendents, on the people as a corporate body. And with the mother bird, the disinterested act merits a reward of long life, however problematic that promise may be, whereas with Amalek there is no promised reward, and no suggested rationale other than just retribution or even the cold dish of revenge.

The moral message of this mitzvah is all the more surprising given that in this very parshah we read, in chapter 24 verse 16: "a person shall be put to death only for his own crime." How, then, do the commentators explain this difficult mitzvah?

Some commentators essentially argue that there is nothing to explain because mitzvot do not have explanations; they are to be obeyed, not understood. This line of argumentation I find to be totally unsatisfying on a number of levels, the simplest of which is that if they are not properly understood they cannot be properly obeyed. Indeed, it seems to be the favored style of argumentation of our current enemies who behave as Amalek, justifying murder with reference to divine revelation that purportedly interprets itself. Others argue that all the seed of Amalek are in fact guilty; the children may not yet have murdered the stragglers among the Jews, but they certainly intend to do so, and when one comes to kill you you should kill him first. This is, again, terribly close to the arguments of our enemies, who say that Jewish babies can be legitimately targeted because they will grow up to be soldiers of occupation.

Others have argued that the mitzvah is a good utilitarian calculation. While punishing those who are not individually guilty is generally reprehensible, it may be justified by great benefit. Thus, Maimonides argues that, in order to deter other tribes from complicity in the evil actions of murderers, the entire tribe must be punished. If only the individually guilty were punished, the tribe as a whole would see that there is no penalty for supporting and nurturing the emergence of such individuals, and their depradations would recur, from Amalek and from other tribes. If the whole tribe is punished, however, no other tribe will dare harbor people who behave as Amalek. The argument about such ethics is very current; the Israeli government is as we speak engaged in a debate, with itself and with the Supreme Court of the State of Israel, over the legitimacy of acts of collective punishment such as expelling the families of terrorists in order to deter other families from permitting a terrorist to rise from their ranks.

I will not argue that such reasoning is impermissable, because it is the kind of reasoning we engage in daily. The government of the United States for decades threatened to incinerate much of the planet in order to deter a similar attack on ourselves by a totalitarian enemy. These kinds of ethics are real, and it does no one any good to deny their existence, or to deny G-d's relevance to them, for if He is not here, where is He, when would we need Him more? I will argue, however, that the command to wipe out Amalek provides us with a useful parameter for determining whether we have legitimately entered the realm of such terrible ethics, or whether we are simply being cruel and murderous. When Saul is commanded to wipe out Amalek, he fails to complete his task, leaving King Agag alive along with much of his cattle and other valuable goods. For this, Saul is excoriated by Samuel and relieved of the kingship. But for what sin was he punished? For failing to kill Agag and destroy his cattle and goods? According to the same friend who expressed relief at not having to carry out such a mitzvah - and I wish I knew his source for this insight - this was not the sin that he was punished for, but rather the sin of murder. For the command was to utterly wipe out Amalek, and Saul failed to execute this command because he sought to derive benefit from Amalek: to take the king captive and ransom him, to take valuable goods and to perform sacrifices to G-d that would accrue to him G-d's favor (there's that mechanistic mitzvah-and-reward view again). And if he was not executing G-d's command, what was his justification for committing a massacre in Amalek? In the absence of G-d's command, the guilt of murdering innocent women, children and others fell squarely on Saul's head.

This, then, is a possible test for whether the nation is genuinely in a situation of these terrible utilitarian ethics: what is the benefit to be derived from the actions? If there is a benefit other than the great benefit to be derived from deterrence then this not only is a negative fact but it eliminates the moral justification for the extreme measures being employed in war, and leaves the nation with the guilt of those measures squarely on its head.

There is a midrash that I believe makes this point obliquely, though it is usually interpreted otherwise. In the midrash, Saul responds to the command to obliterate Amalek by thinking: if for shedding the blood of one man I must break the neck of a heifer, how many heifers' necks will I have to break for shedding the blood of a whole city, including innocent little ones? And in response, a divine voice enjoins him: don't be overly righteous. Elsewhere in his career, Saul orders the priestly city of Nob put entirely to the sword, and the divine voice rebukes him: do not be overly cruel.

This midrash is generally interpreted in one of two ways: either the message is not to be overly kind or overly cruel, but to hew to the median, or that there is a time and place for kindness and cruelty, and in confusing one you will also confuse the other, and be not only kind when one should be cruel but cruel when one should be kind. But I interpret it somewhat differently. Saul hesitates before destroying Amalek because of the cost of repentence: the number of heifers he will have to destroy. And what does he take from Amalek, contrary to Samuel's instruction? Their cattle, for sacrifices. Why does Saul obliterate Nob? Because of his mad jealousy of David, and his desire to preserve his kingdom - not to preserve the kingdom from harm, but to preserve his own position within it. What is common to both errors, the one overly kind, the other overly cruel, is that Saul decides how kind or how cruel to be based on his own interests, not G-d's command.

We have two passages in our parshah, one enjoining compassion, even on birds, and one enjoining cruelty, even on innocent children. In each case, it seems to me that the potential for error lies in bringing personal benefit into the equation. Our compassion must be disinterested, because relying on the promises of reward leads potentially to apostasy. And our cruelty, even more importantly, must be exercised only under G-d's command - that is, under the requirement of sovereign necessity, and not to further our particular interests. For if we are cruel not out of duty, but out of covetousness, or anger, or self-aggrandizement, then all our crimes will be on our heads, and we will, like Saul, lose our kingdoms.