The Fires of Revenge

Leviticus is about rules. The Torah sets out to govern our lives by legislating even the most insignificant of details. This week we read about keeping kosher. This might appear remote and far from our concerns. And yet the Torah’s contention in general, and Leviticus in particular, is that every detail of our lives matters to God.

These laws suggest that the way to create a civilized, and ordered, society begins with the most mundane of activities.  Otherwise we may very well, like Aaron’s sons, create a self-consuming “alien fire.” (Leviticus 10)

This past week we read reports of an Israeli soldier killing a wounded Palestinian terrorist. This episode saddens and sickens me.  It sickens me because Palestinians continue to take up knives in an effort to murder innocent Jews. I remain distraught that many Palestinians, most especially their leaders, offer praise for these terrorists and fail to distance their polity from these heinous acts.  It also saddens me that a young Israeli soldier killed the terrorist after he was apparently subdued and the situation under control.

And yet I find a measure of hope in the fact that the Jewish state arrested the soldier and as of today’s news is prosecuting him on manslaughter charges.  There are those who rush to excuse his behavior, who apologize for his actions with exclamations such as, “In order to defeat terrorists we have to resort to their terrible means.”

The greatest illustration of what it means to be a civilized society is found in this very instance and Israel’s response.  Even our soldiers, who face unimaginably difficult choices, are held to the rule of law.  Although our enemies discard these very same laws, we must cling to them.  If we excuse his actions we march away from ordered civilization.  Our society is governed by rules, even and especially in these most trying of circumstances.  Our societies’ values are most tested in how we treat minorities and when we fight enemies.

What a remarkable testament to Israel and its army that it arrested the soldier.  Despite all the potential negative PR it will receive, Israel will publicly examine its behavior and allow its courts to make a judgements about the soldier’s actions.

Understandably, many within Israel are emotionally wrought.  Some find comfort in the soldier’s actions. Meir Kahane’s writings, who some news reports suggest, inspired this soldier, argued, “No trait is more justified than revenge in the right time and place.”  He used to say that he was only saying out loud what everyone really feels inside.  While revenge might quell our justifiably angry emotions, a society cannot be built upon it.  In fact, the Torah demands the construction of cities of refuge so that a person guilty of manslaughter could escape the revenge that might pursue him.

The Torah sought to build a fence around our emotions.  There is a sense that these feelings could prove the very undoing of the society the Torah seeks to fashion.  I continue to draw inspiration from our Torah and its verses.

Civilized societies and its leaders are not supposed to be ruled by emotions.  Although I would certainly welcome the occasional display of emotion from our President, most especially when Europeans are murdered in Brussels, I recognize that the rule of law is where we place our faith.  It is the law that must govern even the smallest of details and that should dictate our responses.

Ultimately Israel’s Knesset passed a rule barring someone from running for elected office who holds racist and anti-democratic views.   Kahane was therefore prevented from running in elections and his party expelled from Israel’s political system.

It is the law that binds us together. It is our values that link us to one another. Our emotions fray those links.

This is what Leviticus and the Torah seek to instill.  We are of course still working on this balance.  It is tested nearly every week when terrorists attack.

It is the laws that we struggle to uphold which make us extraordinary.  In our response to transgressions against these laws, most especially by one of our own, is when we truly achieve greatness. In the painful self-examinations that follow such occurrences is when our values truly shine.

In the moments when we uphold these values, even in the face of enemies bent on our destruction, is when we can become again and again great nations.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L'Dor V'Dor, a community serving Long Island's North Shore. He began his rabbinical career in 1991 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He travels every summer to Jerusalem to learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow. Rabbi Moskowitz is married to Rabbi Susie Moskowitz and is the father of Shira and Ari.
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