Sunday, August 2, 2015

Parashat Ekev 5775 Rain

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Ekev 5775

This past week was a difficult one here in Israel. There were two separate incidents of murder and attempted murder: First, a man who, based on his external dress, could be called an orthodox, or even ultra- orthodox Jew, attacked other Jews in the center of Jerusalem. Second, an Arab family was attacked, resulting in the death of their youngest child, a toddler named Ali; although the investigation is still underway, the evidence appears to indicate that the perpetrator or perpetrators are, again, “observant” Jews. In both cases, the victims of this unthinkable violence were the very members of society who often feel most persecuted and vulnerable: the gay community on the one hand, and the Arab community on the other.

For two thousand years, Jews have endured one particular challenge in almost every corner of the globe: They have lived as a persecuted minority. With the establishment of the State of Israel, a new challenge emerged: Suddenly, for the first time in millennia, we have been forced to grapple with the challenge of being in charge, of being the majority. So many long-forgotten issues arose with the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty: How will minority groups be treated in the Jewish State? How will those who are “different” be made to feel? Will we protect those “others” – the disenfranchised, the outsiders, or will we make them feel vulnerable?

Although this week’s parashah does not address this topic directly, we may gain insight into the Jewish approach to communal life through Moshe’s final lessons to the Jews as they prepare to enter the Land. Moshe speaks about the need to obey the word of God, to obey the commandments. The consequence of disobedience, he warns them, is lack of rain. (Dvarim 11:16,17) Conversely, if the people follow the will of God, we are assured that rain will fall in the proper quantity and season; economic success is insured. (Dvarim 11:13-15)

What is clear from this section is that the resulting prosperity is collective, and not individual. The rain will not fall only on my crops while my neighbor’s field suffers from drought. The experience of living in a country – especially our country, the Land of Israel, which has a particularly sensitive spiritual constitution - is one of collective economic destiny. Famine, as well as plenty, is a shared reality, and is the result of the behavior of the collective.

There are those who would argue that precisely because of this shared destiny, the religiously sensitive person must step up, take the law into his or her own hands, and insure that the Torah’s commandments are obeyed and enforced. This approach leads to vigilantism of the type we have been subjected to this past week, and it is anathema to Judaism.

From the dawn of our history, Judaism has abhorred murder. The seven Noachide laws (Bereishit 9:5,6) applied to Jews before the covenant at Sinai, and the Ten Commandments include the prohibition of murder (Sh’mot 20:13). Rambam (Maimonides) describes why the taking of a life is considered so severe:

Although there are other sins that are more serious than murder, they do not present as serious a danger to society as murder does. Even idol worship - and needless to say, sexual sins or the violation of the  Sabbath - are not considered as severe as murder, for these other sins involve man's relationship with God, while murder also involves man's relationship with his fellow man.
Whoever commits this sin is an utterly wicked person. All the mitzvot that he performs throughout his lifetime cannot outweigh this sin or save him from judgment. (Laws of Murder and Preservation of Live chapter 4 law 9)

The sin of murder eclipses any good deeds the murderer has done or will do in the future. Thus, a person dressed in “religious garb” who commits murder – is simply a murderer in religious garb, no more and no less. Neither the choice of clothing nor any other religious behavior or affectation will save him or her when the time comes to stand before God and be judged. A murderer may clothe himself in any fashion he chooses, but he is naked in terms of spirituality.

According to Rambam, murder is the most terrible sin precisely because it poses the gravest threat to human society. Taking another person’s life (other than cases of self- defense) - no matter who they are or what you believe them to be guilty of - causes the delicate fabric of society to unravel.[1] Murder pollutes the collective, undermines society at its most basic level – and makes prosperity impossible for each and every individual as well as for society as a whole.  

For a more in-depth analysis see:

Echoes of Eden

[1] Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926), in his commentary to the Torah Meshech Chochma(Shmot 21:14), opines that the killing of a non-Jew is even worse than the killing of a Jew.

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