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Shoftim 5777-2017

“Judaism and the Principle of the Sanctity of Human Life”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

This week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, focuses, for the most part, on the principle of the sanctity of human life.

Parashat Shoftim’s themes include many laws that relate to this important principle: the establishment of courts of law and security forces to enforce the judgments, the punishments for idol worshipers and the rebellious elder, anointing a king in Israel who will lead the people in battle, the fate of false prophets, establishing cities of refuge for those who kill by accident, the punishment for false witnesses and conspiring witnesses, preparing the Jewish army for battle and confronting the enemies of Israel when settling the land of Israel. The parasha concludes with the ritual prescribed for an unsolved murder.

I have long and often argued that the bottom line of all of Judaism is the sanctity of human life, not only Jewish life–but all human life. Even a superficial review of parashat Shoftim underscores how strenuously the Torah emphasizes the need to preserve human life and to protect its sanctity.

Among the many revolutionary laws included in the parasha is the prohibition (Deuteronomy 20:19) to cut down fruit-bearing trees, even in times of war, even in instances where Jewish soldiers lives are at stake. In parashat Shoftim, the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:10) also teaches specifically that before an enemy may be attacked, the Jewish leaders must sue for peace with the enemy, providing an opportunity for former enemies to live in peace if they agree to live under Jewish authority. Even when the enemy refuses to accept peace, and war is declared, according to Maimonides, in Laws of Kings and Wars 6:7, the Jewish army may besiege the enemy on only three sides, allowing the enemy at least one avenue of escape.

Despite the frequent themes of war and battle found in the Hebrew scriptures, even a cursory examination of Jewish sources shows that Judaism has a significant strain of pacifism, even though exercising restraint during ancient times, might, at times, prove to be extremely costly.

In parashat Kee Tisah (Exodus 30:13), we learn that all potential Jewish soldiers were required to donate a half shekel, called in Exodus 30:12, “Koh’fer nefesh”, כֹּפֶר נֶפֶשׁ , to serve as a redemption for the soldier’s soul. The only time that a similar expression is used elsewhere in the Bible is in parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:30) which concerns the owner of a violent (murderous) ox, who had previously killed, and whose owner did not guard the dangerous animal properly. The Torah declares the owner responsible for the victim’s death, and pronounces him subject to the death penalty. But, since it was not through the owner’s actual power that the human being was killed, the owner may pay, “Koh’fer…pidyon nafsho”, כֹּפֶר…פִּדְיֹן נַפְשׁוֹ , a redemption for his soul.

This unusual parallel, teaches that every Jewish soldier is, theoretically, a potential killer. Thus, even before a Jewish solider goes out to war, he must pay the half shekel, a ransom for his soul, lest he take another human being’s life, violating the principle of the sanctity of human life.

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in a brilliant essay concerning the ethics of war, points out that humanism is a philosophy with many positive values. Citing the Midrash, however, Rabbi Filber notes, humanists must be careful, for those who have compassion for the cruel, will ultimately be cruel to those for whom they should have compassion (based on I Samuel 15:9 and Midrash). While the Torah endorses the right of self defense, a Jew is obligated to make certain that innocent blood is not shed.

Maimonides, in the Laws of Murderers, 4:9, states, that even though there are crimes and sins that are worse than murder, it [murder] corrupts the human community, and that all murderers are to be regarded as absolute evil people. No matter what mitzvot murderers may do during their remaining years, their good actions will never outweigh the sin of murder.

Rabbi Filber points out that our patriarch Abraham was the first humanist. Abraham respected human life so passionately, that he offered prayers to save even the Sodomites, the worst people on the face of earth. But when he heard that his nephew, Lot, had been taken captive, he ran after the army that had kidnapped Lot, and beat them severely.

Despite the virtuous deed of saving his nephew’s life, Abraham was afraid that he might have harmed innocent people in battle. To calm Abraham, it was necessary for G-d to reassure him by saying, Genesis 15:1, אַל תִּירָא אַבְרָם , do not be afraid. Jacob too was afraid, when he confronted his long-estranged brother Esau. As the Torah relates, Genesis 32:8, וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד, וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ , Jacob was afraid that he would be killed, וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ , he was fearful that he would have to kill his brother.

Rabbi Filber cites a fascinating statement from the Tanna Dabai Eliyahu Rabba, 28 which proclaims that the Torah was given for the purpose of sanctifying G-d’s great name. Therefore, it teaches that a person must never put himself in a position where he might steal, whether from a Jew or a non-Jew, because one who steals from a non-Jew, will ultimately steal from a Jew. Similarly, one who spills the blood of a non-Jew, will eventually spill the blood of a Jew as well.

To prove the point, the Midrash cites the case of the two sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, (Genesis 34:25) who killed the non-Jewish residents of Shechem. It is they who are identified by the commentaries as the ones who conspired against Joseph to kill him. As recorded in Genesis 37:20, the brothers say: וְעַתָּה לְכוּ וְנַהַרְגֵהוּ וְנַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בְּאַחַד הַבֹּרוֹת, וְאָמַרְנוּ, חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ, וְנִרְאֶה מַה יִּהְיוּ חֲלֹמֹתָיו , “And now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits, and we will say that ‘an evil beast ate him,’ and we will see what will be with his dreams.”

Even in our own times, concludes Rabbi Filber, where we stand in defense of our lives against those who wish to eradicate and destroy us, even though we are fighting a pure and just battle, we must spare no effort to ensure that no innocent blood is shed.

May you be blessed.