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Violence, Vengeance, and Vindication

04/30/2021 01:38:43 PM


Shabbat Shalom! Tonight, we count day thirty-four of the omer, and honor a foundation of glory, Yesod she’beHod. Rabbi Jill Hammer’s Omer Calendar of Biblical women attributes this day and this point of the kabbalistic spiral of these days to Avigayil, one of David’s wives. In the book of Samuel, David is on the run from King Saul and encounters some difficulties with a landowner on whose land he is squatting. David seeks to kill this man, but his wise and beautiful wife entreats David not to shed blood. She reveals herself to be something of a prophetess, foreseeing David’s future kingdom and warns him not to taint that reign with unnecessary killing now. The landowner dies anyway, of seemingly natural causes, and David marries his wise and beautiful wife, taking her with his as he continues his conquest over the land and his plans to usurp Saul’s throne. It is because of Avigayil’s wisdom and willing to move David’s heart with her words that we associate her with prophecy, connection, foundation, and glory on this day of the omer. “We are most like Avigayil when we use our gifts to connect deeply with others,” says Rabbi Hammer.

Recently, I’ve been watching a show called “The 100” on Netflix, courtesy of a confirmation student who got me hooked on it. A common theme throughout the show is the struggle in determining when violence is necessary or appropriate. There are issues of colonialism, war, self-defense, mistrust, and revenge that spur the moral struggles of the characters. Although it is a futuristic dystopian teen drama, a lot of the basic concepts are very real and issues we too often prefer to view as clear cut and out of our hands as civilians. Across the globe, humans today also engage in violent colonialism or imperialism and war; we often act in what we think is self-defense or justified revenge but still leads to more unnecessary bloodshed. A common refrain throughout the show is, “Blood must have blood.” Announced as one culture kills in retaliation – understood as justice – for a killing of their own. It is a radical statement when one leader arises and tries to announce, “Blood must not have blood,” and negotiates peace treaties and coalitions.

Blood must have blood sounds awfully like a section from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor. Leviticus 24:17-20 says, “If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death.  One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it: life for life. If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.” But just as “blood must have blood” leads to a cycle of endless war, “an eye for an eye will cause the whole world to go blind.” Thus, our rabbis explain that this verse of Torah does not mean we actually inflict the same wound upon a perpetrator, but rather that the perpetrator is liable to repair the damage done, namely through monetary means. The Talmud also records a conversation in which they discuss the layers of witnesses and judges necessary in order to convict in a capitol case, so determined are they to never put an innocent person to death or to shed unnecessary blood. The anonymous voice of the Mishnah posits, “A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called a murderous one.” Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah responds in the text, “Or even once in 70 years.” Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba both add, “If we had been in the Sanhedrin, no death sentence would ever have been passed.”

Although the debate over the death penalty in this country rises and falls every so often, depending on the state, the crime, the evidence, and so on, it seems that while the peshat of our Torah might suggest being in favor of the death penalty, on the whole Jewish tradition is to stand against it. In this country, we know that the justice system is not always just, and people have been exonerated after years on death row for crimes they didn’t commit. We can only imagine how many innocents were also put to death. Even for those not so innocent, surely there is a better way to handle bloodshed without causing more bloodshed. Blood must not have blood. An eye for an eye causes the whole world to be blind. Chazal never meant to teach us that a life for a life was a literal act of justice, but that reparations must be done when someone is injured, killed, or incurs loss of property.

On a much, much smaller scale, Ner Shalom has engaged with such a process just recently. Last summer, we received a voicemail message full of antisemitic comments and a bomb threat, which was quickly ruled out as non-credible. Still, the call was a crime and the police traced it and found the perpetrator. A minor with no previous criminal record or any indicators of similarly bigoted past behavior. Rather than press charges and inflict upon this misguided child a harm that may feel relative to the fear and trauma we experienced by his call, we participated in a restorative justice program with the county. We sat with the boy and his mom, learned what motivated him to make the call, explained to him the harm he caused, and arranged some follow up steps for him to make restitution through community service actions. Again, this obviously does not compare to the stakes involved in a “life for life” type case, but I believe it sets a good model for how Jews may engage with justice and revenge, and I am proud of our progress with this case (shout out to Jillian Perry for her immense help with handling the whole thing from start to finish this past year!).

Probably, none of use had plans to shed unnecessary blood this weekend or will find ourselves in the position to talk someone else out of such a thing in the near future, but I hope that if ever the occasion arises, we will hold in mind the lessons gleaned from the values of Yesod she’beHod and the rabbinic teachings of this parasha. Let us connect with one another person-to-person, even when it is difficult. Let us avoid all unnecessary bloodshed. And may we create a lasting peace among us. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Sun, September 26 2021 20 Tishrei 5782