Arik Ascherman

The Tetragrammaton, Din, Rakhamim and My Attacker’s Sentencing

In this week’s Torah portion (VaEra) God begins by revealing to Moses the tetragrammaton (Yud Heh Vav Heh), a name that God says that God had never revealed to the patriarchs (or, presumably, the matriarchs). Recall that when Moses requested God’s Name last week, God was only willing to say “ehyeh asher ehyeh.” It is difficult to translate “I will be what I will be?” “I am what I am?” “I am what I will be?” In the biblical view, knowing the name of somebody or something tells you what their essence is, and gives you power over that person or thing. God refuses to be defined or controlled. God takes this step now because Moses is despairing, having seemed to have so far done more harm than good. This pattern will continue with God revealing God’s Thirteen Attributes after the golden calf crisis. Moses uses these attributes to convince God to continue to not destroy the Israelites, and to continue to personally accompany them. Moses will use them again when God threatens to destroy the Israelites after 10 of the 12 spies bring back a negative report. We use a modified version of the Thirteen Attributes until this day to ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur.

Our sages identify Yud Heh Vav Heh with God’s Attribute of mercy and compassion (rakhanim), and yet another name, “Elohim,” with God’s Attribute of strict justice (din). This is because the revelation of Yud Heh Vav Heh is followed by the well known 4 promises of redemption that God makes to Moses regarding the redemption of the Israelites. (or 5, causing the sages to leave a 5th cup of Passover wine/grape juice for Elijah to figure out what to do with the 5th promise.)

Rakhamim for whom? Immediately after this revelation the plagues begin. In “God Wrestling” Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes that Genesis ends when the series of conflicts between younger and older siblings ends because Jacob gives the primary blessing to the younger Efraim, but blesses Efraim and Menashe together. However, he then suggests that the Exodus is different because there can be evil from which there is no solution other than a radical break. Yet, we must ask whether all of the Egyptians deserved to be punished for the actions of Pharaoh and his officers? Our tradition teaches us that all are responsible. Rabbi Heschel taught, “In a democratic society some are guilty but all are responsible.” However, Egypt was not a democratic society. Dissent no doubt brought serious consequences.

Must rakhamim for some be at the expense of others? Could the Israelites have been freed in any other way. We all know the saying that to be merciful to the cruel eventually leads to the merciful suffering more from cruelty. However, the midrash also teaches us that that just as a glass will break if it is filled with water that is too cold or too hot, God had to create the world with both din and rakhamim in order for it to survive. In other words, the necessary measure of rakhamim for all, not just for those “on our side,” is in our self interest.

I just came down the steep hilltop above Uja, where I was one of those Israelis attacked by the “hilltop youth” because we were protecting Palestinian shepherds. For most of the day the security forces did their job, and kept the recently returned hilltop youth at bay. As the last of us were leaving, they heard shouts because hilltop youth had succeeded in evading the security forces (or perhaps the forces left early). Thankfully, the shepherds were far enough ahead to avoid attack. Earlier in the day my thoughts drifted from the April attack to when I was attacked by a knife wielding minor from the Itamar settlement in October 2015 (Google “Ascherman, knife), my attacker’s recent sentencing, and din and rakhamim.

There are some who are repeating versions of what happened that day that contradict both the video and the factual summary by the judge in the sentence. To refresh your memory, the army was guarding Palestinian farmers harvesting their olives that day immediately below the Itamar settlement and her outposts. After the farmers left their grove, they turned around and saw Israelis stealing olives. They contacted us, and we contacted the security forces. Just after forces chased away (but didn’t arrest) the thieves, a fire broke out in an olive grove one wadi over. I and two other people (neither of them Palestinian) went up to try to direct the security forces to the location. One went back. I could see the fire and two Israelis still far above, but was not in sight of any settlement or outpost when I was surprised from the side by the knife wielding young man who had previously menacingly come down from the hilltop to where the Palestinian farmers who had left their fields were watching far below. When I lost my balance one can see in the video that he several times almost plunges the knife into me, but each time chose not to.

On the one hand, there are those among the supporters of the settlement movement repeating the lie that I had been leading a horde of Palestinians and “leftists” to the gates of a settlement.

On the other hand, there are those whose views are closer to mine who have criticized me because at the sentencing hearing I outlined concrete steps I requested that the Court order in order to rehabilitate my attacker and protect society, but said that there was no point in incarcerating him (The sociologist Emile Durkheim outlines 3 possible purposes of punishment: 1. Revenge. 2. Protecting Society. 3. Rehabilitation.) I asked that he must have violence therapy, must meet with religious Jews who think differently than him about Palestinian human rights in order to expand his universe, and that he not be recruited to the army if it wasn’t entirely certain that he wouldn’t abuse Palestinians with the power that would be in his hands. At the very least, he must be watched and not put in positions that put his rehabilitation to the test. The fact is that, my attacker has been in intensive violence therapy for the past year and a half. He and his family have left the Occupied Territories. He apparently understood that he needed to cut himself off from the environment that, along with the trauma of the Fogel murders, inculcated in him violent tendencies and hatred of Palestinians and leftists. His work to rehabilitate himself was cited by the judge in her decision to sentence him only to 150 hours community service, paying me NIS 5,000 and needing to pay another NIS s5,000 if he is involved in violence in the next two years. He will not have a conviction on his record, in order to allow him to enter the army and to rebuild his life without a stain on is record.

I am not happy that my attacker was not convicted, and that it is now up to the army to act wisely and either not recruit him or not place him in a position where he may be tempted to abuse the power in his hands. However, I am totally at peace for not asking for incarceration or revenge. We humans must emulate God as much as is humanly possible. I believe that my recommendations were the correct balance between rakhamim and din. As with the creation of the world, it is also in our utilitarian interest to help a young man rehabilitate himself, rather than acting with strict din.

We are taught in the Talmud that God also prays. God’s prayer is that God’s rakhamim should always overcome (or at least properly temper) God’s din. Our tendency is to seek rakhamim for those on “our side,” and din for those who aren’t. In fact, my attacker’s lawyer said specifically that my attacker should have been treated differently had he been Palestinian, and that the book should be thrown at the “little terrorist” Ahed Tamimi for slapping a soldier. On this Shabbat, may God’s Prayer be our prayer. May we all learn to allow our rakhamim temper our din whether or not we are dealing with somebody who is on “our side.” When we ask in our prayers that God return to Zion in rakhamim, may we pray and work for rakhamim for all. In so doing, may we perhaps redefine what “sides” are.

Shabbat Shalom

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.