As the news unfolded about the horrific massacre at the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, NY, and the 10 beautiful lives brutally ended while grocery shopping, the reporting turned to the shooter’s “manifesto,” and his hate saturated words. The act of terror was based on fear of “Great Replacement Theory,” which warns that white, Christian Europeans are at risk of being “replaced” by non-white, non-Christian, Black and Brown people, orchestrated by Jewish power in America. The ideology is chilling and beyond dangerous to society.
Our biblical ancestors sought to create a very different kind of civilization. Parashat Behar, while ostensibly a text that focuses on the pursuit of holiness through laws of land tenure, sabbatical, indenture, and indebtedness, contains two verses that specifically speak to the prohibition against harming (tonu) another. While the focus is on the transfer of property, Leviticus 25:14 reads: “when you sell property or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another” and verse 17 continues: “Do not wrong one another, but fear God; for I am your God.”
These rules may specifically apply to real estate transactions, but later rabbinic authorities expanded their scope to include all kinds of commercial transactions. The repetition of the same phrase, lo tonu – do not harm – however, begs to be understood in a more expanded sense.
Rashi, the great 11th century French commentator explains that the first occurrence of the phrase indeed refers to commercial wrongs, however he interprets the second use of the phrase not to money or possessions, but remarkably, to feelings, and even more specifically to words. This may be a bit of a stretch, even for Rashi. But he draws his understanding from the Talmud, which discusses both verses, and concludes that the second use of tonu refers to injuring someone with words (BT Baba Metzia 58b).
The Sages reflected that it is injurious to take advantage, in any way, of someone with your words. Ona’at devarim – injury through words – can be deeply damaging, despite the old maxim that only “sticks and stones” can do that. Of course, injurious words are what filled this latest manifesto, and every single such screed linked to a mass shooting over the last 4 years: in El Paso, Texas, Poway, California, Christ Church, New Zealand, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and in Charlottesville, West Virginia. These terrorists are spouting vile, fascist, and long held ideas in new and devastating ways and their desire to spread these ideas through their violent actions and beyond, underscores the very reason the Bible includes what actions pursue holiness, and which do not.
Our ancient ancestors knew well that thoughts lead to words and words lead to actions. We are responsible for what comes out of our mouths and what actions we perform, and every word and deed has consequences. Indeed, only a few verses before the exhortation not to harm anyone do we find, proclaim liberty throughout the land (25:10) – the verse inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. What better message can we use to remember those killed in Buffalo: that liberty can only be proclaimed when supremacist, racist, and antisemitic language and violence are banished, forever.