In last week’s and this week’s Torah readings the Israelites are told what they are to do when they enter the land promised to Abraham; namely, to dislodge every people and nation living there, to defeat and destroy them, to grant them no terms, give them no quarter, and feel no pity – to obliterate their sacred places, to consign their idols to fire, and wipe them out utterly and completely.
As Ekev begins this week we read of the blessings that will come from these multiple acts of violence against the indigenous and idolatrous peoples that the Israelites encounter.
Thankfully, this excessive militancy is balanced by the attribute of compassion elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible and throughout rabbinic tradition. Our sages teach, in fact, that if there is too much harsh judgment and too little compassion the world will be destroyed, just as too much empathy and too few just standards will sink the world into chaos. A proper balance between din and rachamim is therefore essential to the survival and well-being of the community itself.
The Sefer Hachinukh says that “kindness and mercy are among the most worthy qualities in the world…[and if someone would…] teach himself to be cruel he would attest about himself that he is not a Jew, for we are rachmanim b’nai rachmanim - compassionate children of compassionate parents.” (Mishpatim 42, based on the Bavli, Kiddushin 4a)
The Zohar emphasizes this virtue when it says that Jacob became Yisrael after his struggle at the river Jabbok only in order to attach himself to the quality of compassion. (1:174a) The Talmud is categorical - “One who shows no compassion, it is known that he is not of the seed of Abraham.” (Bavli, Beitzah 32b)
In a recent essay, Rabbi David Seidenberg wrote:
“Hamas members, being Muslim, are also of the seed of Abraham. That Hamas has been hiding rockets in schools, daring Israel to fire on places that should be safe. That Hamas used concrete to build miles of tunnels and no public bomb shelters. And that Hamas’ lack of compassion, to their own people and to Israeli civilians, shows that they are neither true Muslims, nor of the spiritual seed of Abraham.”
We Jews, of course, have our own hard-hearted fanatics who care little about others and little about the innocent Palestinians who have been caught tragically in the cross-fire.
Three weeks ago, Rabbi Dov Lior, a leading West Bank rabbi in the settlement of Kiryat Arba who had written a book justifying the killing of non-Jews, issued a religious ruling saying that Jewish law permits the destruction of Gaza to keep southern Israel safe, and that the army may “take crushing deterring steps to exterminate the enemy.” (Jewish Telegraphic Agency - July 24, 2014).
This Jewish version of a fatwa is shocking in and of itself, and when he added the word “exterminate” given our own Jewish experience in the Holocaust, it is doubly disturbing and reprehensible.
In response, Meretz party leader Zahava Gal-On asked Israel’s Attorney General to launch an investigation against Lior for incitement.
Another hareidi rabbi, Yisroel Yitzchok Kalmanovitz, of the fanatical Lithuanian Jerusalemite sect, turned his hard-heartedness not on Hamas fighters, as one might expect, but on non-religious Israeli soldiers saying that it is better for them to die in Gaza as “martyrs” than it is for them to lie and continue to sin.
At the same time, I was relieved to see that many hareidi Jews prayed for the welfare of all our soldiers in this war.
For us, the question must always be – ‘How does the tension between judgment and compassion play out in our hearts, in our relationships with those near and dear to us, with friends, co-workers and colleagues, with our community, with the stranger, and even with our legitimate enemies?’
The famous midrash from the Passover Seder is a reminder of what tradition requires of us – to refrain from celebrating when our enemies perish, and to open the heart to all human suffering whether it be in southern Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, the Congo, Sudan, or on the streets of Hollywood.
The way we answer that question and the way we open our hearts to others will determine not just the nature of our Jewishness but of our humanity.