Bad Intent Is Not a Death Sentence: Sinai, Gaza and Ruth

Not for the first time, my thoughts (and writing) as Shavuot approach turn to the Tikun Leyl Shavuot (all-night Shavuot Torah study) teaching I heard from my beloved teacher Rabbi Ben Hollander z”l in 1983. My recollections of that evening appear in the finally published collection of Ben’s teachings and Torah commentary, “To Be Continued,” available on Amazon.  I will come back to Ben’s teaching.

Gaza is also on everybody’s minds today. For most, either Israel can do no right, or Israel can do no wrong.  I have seen a Facebook post asking what the difference is between Israeli soldiers shooting unarmed Palestinians, and Nazis shooting unarmed Jews. Some don’t believe that Israel is justified in trying to prevent a breach of our border. If we are merely a colonialist state that has no right to exist, how can we have a border, or have a right to protect our citizens? Others seem to think that Israel is justified in killing anybody who is a Hamas activist and would like to do us harm, even if s/he is incapable of doing so, and even if Israel has less lethal means of stopping them.  Normally they would never believe a word that anybody from Hamas says, but suddenly Hamas’ dire threats they have no ability to carry out justify death sentences.  Once we removed our Gaza settlements, the stranglehold we continue to maintain does not give us any responsibility for keeping Gaza the world’s largest open air prison, or for the humanitarian crisis that some say will make Gaza uninhabitable.

In endless debates I continue to remind people that the Tractate Sanhedrin gives us a good way of framing the debate.  First we are taught that “If somebody comes to kill you, you get up earlier and kill them first.” (Sanhedrin 702a) However, this is in the context of the Biblical passage that one can kill a thief tunneling into your house in the middle of the night, but not if it is daylight. (Exodus 22:1) In the ensuing discussion we learn that that the real question is whether we have reason to believe that our life is in danger. We are then taught on Sanhedrin 74a that we must kill somebody about to commit murder. However, if we could have stopped the potential murderer by any other means, and even if we were simply trying to save human life, the Talmud says that we ourselves have committed murder.

The Talmud, very similar to international law, gives us three tests that must be applied in the very difficult situation in which we must decide how to defend ourselves: 1. Is the person intending harm. 2. Is the person capable of carrying out his/her intent? 3.  Do we have non-lethal means to prevent murder? The Talmud goes on to say that we cannot kill an innocent person, even to save our own life.

Even if every one of those killed on the Gaza border was an evil person intending to murder Jews, we should not have killed that person if there was no threat that the person can carry out his/her intent.

As I briefly alluded to in my Passover Thoughts, I urged caution about jumping to conclusions after 16 Palestinians were killed on the first day of demonstrations.  Even a video seemingly showing a Palestinian being shot in the back must be checked out. Torat Tzedek called for an independent and transparent Israeli investigation, even though we knew from experience that neither the government nor the army would allow such a thing. By the second week I could no longer be as cautious.  While Israel’s preventing an independent investigation and refusing to reveal the current open fire orders means that nobody has all the facts, I found it impossible to continue believing that all of those killed were killed in situations that met the three necessary tests.

In most of the conversations I have been holding, we never get to the point where we rationally try to apply the three tests.  Questions about where Palestinians were located when they were killed, what they were doing, and whether they had the tools or capability to breach the fence are not answered, but parried with more and more proofs how much the Palestinians want to do us harm. I don’t even bother to remind people that our Chief of Staff Eisenkot and Likud Minister Yisrael Katz have been warning that Gaza is about to blow if we don’t alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

When we don’t get entirely stuck, I am asked, “How are you so certain that there were alternatives?”   This still belies the question how many of those killed actually presented a threat. I am not entirely sure that we have alternatives.  However, I have been listening to the threats of our leaders from the outset, saying that anyone who demonstrates has his/her blood on her head. Given the fact that we knew what was coming weeks ahead, I ask whether we could have set up 8 meter concrete slabs as we did for parts of the separation barrier?  Having witnessed army crowd control many times, I am quite confident that they had other means at their disposal.

So, back to Rabbi Hollander,  he taught us during that Tikun Leyl Shavuot that our sages were very perturbed because Boaz married a Moabite, even though the Torah specifically forbids this.  However, they concluded that Boaz was on the Sanhedrin of his time, and that the Sanhedrin had recently decided that the prohibition is only against marrying a Moabite, not a Moabitess. He went on to teach that Boaz and Ruth created a spark leading to King David because they did the right thing even when all around them criticized.

Of course, those holding diametrically opposing opinions often believe that they are the misunderstood ones who are doing the right thing despite criticism.  I am constantly amazed that many settlers see themselves as an embattled minority, even though they receive so much government support.  However, I know that it is true.

I can only point out that many have noted that the Book of Ruth, the book our sages chose to be read on the anniversary of the revelation at Sinai, is primarily about hessed (loving-kindness) and loyalty cutting across ethnic divides. It doesn’t deal with Sabbath observance, murder, theft, or almost any of  the ten commandments. It is about honoring parents, if that includes in-laws. Arguably, Ruth’s declaration “your God (shall be) my God connects to the declaration that Adonai is God, and God’s prohibition against worshiping anyone or anything else.

We are taught that the world can only exist when din (law and strict justice) are balanced with hessed . We cannot allow ourselves to break all rules and simply be a law unto ourselves.  And, whether we are speaking about Gaza, fellow Israelis living in poverty, African asylum seekers, threatened non-Jewish villages on both sides of the Green Line, Palestinian farmers trying to reap their grains today in almost the same way that our ancestors did in the Book of Ruth, or any other human rights issue anywhere, we must remember that the laws we received at Sinai must be seen through the prism of the hessed of the Book of Ruth that knows no borders, and even finds the way to allow marriage to a Moabitess,  when it is truly the right thing to do.

There is a fascinating juxtaposition of this week’s Torah portion and the holiday of Shavuot that begins the moment Shabbat ends tomorrow night.  We will read in “Bamidbar” about leaving Sinai before we read on Shavuot what took place at Sinai.  It is yet one more reminder of our sages teaching that there is no chronological order in the Torah. I often say that we have made it to the Promised Land, but are still on our way to Sinai.  Even next week, although we will have already relived Sinai, and although we will no longer be counting the Omer as we have counted the days to Sinai after leaving Egypt on the night of the Passover seder, we must continue to create sparks and continue on our way to Sinai.

Shabbat Shalom and Shavua Tov

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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