Recently I went on a picnic with my wife and youngest daughter at a local park well known for its exceptionally groomed rose gardens. I was reminded of a time over two decades ago, when I took a leisurely walk with my wife and in-laws at the same park, when we happened upon a very understated and unpublicized public demonstration. At the time we went down a path that led to a small, shaded pond where we would sometimes go to relax and feed the ducks. That day the pond was crowded with about fifty participants launching tiny replica sailboats. Several spectators like ourselves probably happened serendipitously upon the event. It was not immediately apparent what the significance of the boats was until a series of speeches were given which proclaimed the activity as a commemoration of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima by the U.S. military. I was immediately impressed by the passivity of the demonstration against war in general and nuclear proliferation specifically. My father-in-law though was visibly upset. Though he was not a hawkish type at all, he reacted to what he understood as a simplistic and naive demonstration, which had failed to acknowledge the lives saved by the historic bombing. One of those lives saved might have in fact been his own, since he had just finished boot camp in Biloxi, Mississippi at the time of the unprecedented military action. It did not escape me then or now that the horrific attack on Hiroshima may have ironically saved not only my father-in-law’s progeny but by extension mine as well. We might ask if it is necessary to take such drastic measures in dealing with the present injustices that presently exist in the world to fulfill a mandate of compassion?
This moral conundrum is still pressing today. Though I do not believe just civilizations desire to be involved in continuous and protracted violence, some would say it is often necessary for the “greater good”. It should be considered that the decision to escalate the proportional response using weapons of mass destruction, changed the history of violence exponentially. President Harry S. Truman wrote concerning the decision to drop the bomb, “I felt to extract a genuine surrender from the Emperor and his military advisors there must be administered a tremendous shock which would carry convincing proof of the power to destroy the Empire. Such an effective shock would save the many times the number of lives, both American and Japanese, than it cost.” Yet reasonable people cannot be comfortable with the nuclear proliferation that has followed that initial action, as well as the use of chemical weapons and other WMD’s. How should true believers feel when attempting to hold hatred of violence and compassion for those victimized, in creative tension with contempt for evil and the necessity in this world for swift and proportionate justice?
This week’s parsha Ki Tetse begins, “When you go to war against your enemies.” The realities and assumptions of the ancient world are expressed in this statement from God by the mouth of Moses. Notice it says when and not if. This does not mean that the Holy One universally advocates war; rather that He recognizes that in this age there will be war. In the ancient world, life was governed and patterned by morally capricious and mean-spirited deities, not a benevolent and purposeful God. The message then was clearly understood – grab what you can when you can. But Torah initiates a change in how first Israel, and then the other nations would begin to understand and incorporate mercy and compassion into the fabric of society.
Of course, this can be hard to observe from the first command given in this parsha. Roughly paraphrased, if a man takes a woman as a spoil of war, he is commanded to give her a place in his harem rather than merely discarding her, in this way domesticating and systematizing war rape. But there is also a caveat that if the man should grow weary of the woman, he can dismiss her, but may not sell her into slavery. Certainly, these practices would not be deemed acceptable today anywhere in the civilized western society. The men of Israel are told how to treat women captured in war, but are never told to keep their hands off, instruction which, from our ethical vantage point, would be considerably better. But within a world system where women were considered weak and inferior, valued only for their physical appeal and procreative abilities, the laws of Israel provided much greater protection. In the ancient Near East, when a woman’s apparent fate was captivity, she would beautify herself in hopes of being accorded mercy by way of her captives. Only in the Torah of Israel are war captives afforded this level of civility, given an appropriate length of time to mourn their dead while being cared for and protected, and only then could they be “married” by their captors. Though it may sound ludicrous on the surface, the biblical narrative and stipulations do describe a process of taming an already chaotic world. Israel and its law system are radical and transforming to the ancient world of the bible, but they do not immediately overturn the entire social order of the existing world system. To say they did not go far enough might seem like an extreme understatement from our contemporary vista, but they introduce standards of mercy that were previously absent in the ancient world. Torah describes the entrance of God’s cosmic ordering into the socio-moral plane. Israel in turn acts as the conduit of God’s principles to a world already filled with disharmony, violence, and inequality.
Ki Tetse continues to lay out an array of commandments all concerned with ethical and moral treatment, and compassion for all. The favoring of siblings (21:15-17), dealing with difficult unruly offspring (21:18-21), the dignity of the deceased (21:22-23), compassion toward animals (22:6-7; 10; 25:4) and the proper treatment of hired help (24:14-15) are all covered in this portion. Like the treatment of women, the statutes contained in this portion may at times seem inadequate, dated, or irrelevant to us. But in fact, they represent a code and trajectory that has changed and transformed the world and continues to do so, when God’s people understand and apply the intention of these commands, ordinances and judgements. They suggest to us that first and foremost our creator wishes us to imitate him by bringing a touch of mercy into an already unjust world. Only in Torah can mercy and justice be held together in such a delicate tension.
An ancient Midrash tells of a king who was in possession of a delicate set of glasses. He desired to pour hot drink into them but feared they might expand and shatter. He wished to pour cold drinks into them but feared they might contract and break. So, he chose to mix the hot and the cold beverages and pour them into the glasses leaving them uncompromised and intact. In the same way the midrash continues, the Holy One, blessed be He, mixes together mercy and justice, for if the world were filled with only justice who might stand, but if it were filled with only mercy, evil would proliferate.
Above all God is the Merciful One If we wish to imitate him, we must bring compassion into all of the circumstances of life. The High Holidays are approaching, a time of reflection and introspection. This is a time where we ask the Holy One how we might better reflect His glory in the coming year.
Rachmunas – compassion – is what we see in the Torah passage because God is a compassionate God. If we want to make him smile, we ask ourselves the question, “How can I be a more compassionate human being and bring mercy into an often-unjust world?” As moms, dads, friends, neighbors, employers, and children of God – how can we live and act more compassionately? Through the month of Elul as you hear the shofar, and into the days of awe, Torah compels us to answer this question.