Sacred Violence

The Torah is filled with violence, although it doesn’t always seem real to us. Imagine if there would be today a “splitting of the Red Sea,” and Egyptian soldiers would be killed by the thousands, even myriads. Wouldn’t it be unseemly to sing and dance over their destruction –“the horse and its rider were tossed in the sea… the mighty sank in the water like lead”? I am not referring to the Talmudic comment that G-d admonished the angels for singing; that is a different point – in the ideal world, every human being would be engaged in Divine service and to that extent the death of every human being is a loss. But we recite Az Yashir ¬– Moshe’s song celebrating the miracle at the Red Sea and the destruction of the Pharaoh’s forces – every day. Every day we recount the downfall of our enemy. But how do we react to the violence? How do we not become desensitized to it?
It is not the first or last time this matter is confronted in the Torah. In Sh’mot, Moshe saw an Egyptian beating a Jew – and he killed him, buried him in the sand, and the next day had to flee Egypt. Moshe killed him. Who kills people? The Torah doesn’t even say that the Egyptian was trying to kill the Jew, only that he was hitting him. For that you kill someone?
And all the accounts of the plagues visited upon Egypt – one after another and culminating with the Red Sea – begs the question: does anyone feel sorry for them, at any point? Should we? Does the Torah ever command us to feel sympathy for our enemies? (Mishlei 24:17 deals with personal enemies, not national ones; besides, numerous other verses contradict it – e.g., Mishlei 11:10). There’s even a children’s song I remember that makes the divine plagues visited upon the Egyptians seem entertaining – about the frogs that afflicted the Egyptians. Or do we simply rely on G-d’s justice and exult in that “G-d is my might and my song, and He is a salvation for me… G-d is the Master of war, G-d is His name.”
Master of war? Rashi comments that G-d is the Master of War – and even when He takes vengeance on His enemies, still “G-d is His name,” He remains a merciful G-d who can wage war and provide for the domestic needs of His servants. But how do we even feel about G-d being “Master of war?” We are accustomed to depicting G-d as compassionate and gracious. But the “Master of war?” Why are we never commanded to have sympathy for these victims of sacred violence, of which there are legions in the Bible?
Sympathy is usually an unreliable tool to measure either people’s character or their moral aspirations. I’ve noticed over the years that, like many things in life, there is a Bell Curve that accurately charts the people’s parameters of sympathy for others. There are some who feel bad for everyone – or almost everyone; they are “extreme sympathizers.” Even if the predicament is of the person’s own making, they will still feel bad for them. They’ll even feel bad for bad people, although maybe not real evil people.
Others are at the opposite extreme – they are “sympathy-challenged.” They believe in self-help and initiative, that people naturally suffer for their own mistakes, and that most bad situations are avoidable – most, not all, and they reserve their sympathy for the absolutely unavoidable. And the majority of people are found somewhat in the middle of the Bell Curve – they’ll sympathize with most but not all victims, but with one remarkable dimension: very often reasonable people will differ as to whether some victims deserve sympathy or not.
Take this case: Do Pharaoh’s armies that drowned in the Red Sea deserve our sympathy? Each of them was certainly a child of someone, and probably a father and a husband as well. Their deaths were undoubtedly tragic for their families and communities. But they don’t seem real to us, and are ancient in any event. Nonetheless, more modern cases present: Gazan children killed inadvertently by Israeli rockets targeting terrorists who build their infrastructure in residential neighborhoods seem to provoke much more international sympathy (contrived and hypocritical, to be sure) than did the children of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or Dresden. Those killed – almost all civilians – did not seem to provoke as much hand-wringing then (less than seventy years ago) as they unquestionably would today. So, are we more moral – or less moral – than we were seventy or 3300 years ago? Are we more sensitive to human suffering or perhaps just less judgmental about absolute evil?
I think the latter, and the answer to all these questions comes down to values. American society is adrift in sporadic violence and seeming dysfunction, and not because there is more violence today than ever. It only seems that way, but in fact violent crime has dropped precipitously in the last two decades. What has changed is the type of violence – from violence directed at victims of crimes from which the perpetrator hoped to derive some material benefit to random shootings of strangers for no discernible reason. That dysfunction suggests that large sectors of a nation that has lost touch with the G-d of the Bible, and no longer perceives people as created in the image of G-d. That detachment nurtures an avalanche of violence in the culture – books, television, movies, video games – that has a greater impact on people, especially those with defective souls or defective minds, more than anything else. The killing doesn’t seem real to them, and just like the violence in the Bible, it doesn’t really register. The disconnect with G-d added to the cultural celebration of violence and combined with one other volatile ingredient – that fame is more important than accomplishment, regardless how the fame is achieved – engender these sporadic eruptions of violence. If self-debasement is the ticket to fame, so be it; violence is just another form of self-abasement.
But the Bible contains epic scenes of violence; how is it then that Jewish society is less violent than others – still – and even with our children being reared on the stories in the Torah? It is not that there is no violence in Jewish life, but it is exceedingly rare and always lamentable. I think it is because we are also taught the value of every human being created in the image of
G-d, and especially because we internalize “G-d as the Master of war.” We have been given a system of absolute good and absolute evil and the capacity to distinguish them – and therefore we also recognize that reckless compassion and wanton sympathy are inherently dangerous: “He who is compassionate to the cruel will eventually be cruel to the compassionate” (Midrash Kohelet Rabba 7:16; Tanchuma Metzora 1) – and that distorts our entire value system.
And one more reason – we have been given the gift of optimism, of looking forward to a brighter and more peaceful era.
In one of the cryptic questions posed by the Wise Men of Athens in the Talmud to R. Yehoshua, trying to test his wisdom and to concede the superiority of Roman culture and values over those of the Torah – they asked (Bechorot 8b): “How do you cut a field of knives or swords? He answered: “with the horn of a donkey.” They retorted, “does a donkey have horns?” to which R. Yehoshua replied, in classic Jewish fashion, “Is there a field that grows knives?”
The dialogue is enigmatic but brilliant. Of course, our world today is a field of knives and swords and guns and weapons. Mankind has always struggled with a disregard for human life; we are just more aware of its failings today because they are broadcast into our homes. What keeps us striving, and what gives us confidence that goodness will ultimately prevail, is the horn of the donkey – the donkey that brings Messiah, who “rides on a donkey,” and whose “horn” (pride) will be uplifted and symbolize our salvation and that of the world. The Messiah re-introduces to the world the notion of an objective morality – absolute good and absolute evil. It is the task of good people even today to enunciate those values. Civilization is undermined when such people are timid, reticent and withdraw from the fray.
That is why our spiritual giants were always warriors – despite rumors we hear today from some quarters – Avraham, Moshe, Yehoshua, David and others. They did not hesitate to take up arms and to act forcefully when necessary. The Jewish spiritual heroes were always warriors – but always reluctant warriors. They embodied a code that has a great respect for all life but also great contempt for injustice and evil. That is why we sing daily of the death of the wicked at the Red Sea, and the wicked everywhere, not because they died but because we saw evil perish and justice triumph – and why, even today, with each such triumph over evil, we move the world ever closer to the day of when “G-d will reign forever.”

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4 responses to “Sacred Violence

  1. Fantastic. A welcome relief to your insightful, yet depressing commentary on current US political events. More please.

  2. I just found your blog and I am impressed with the wisdom you bring to light in your teachings. I consider it a treasure. BTW, I am not Jewish, but a Torah observant gentile. Shalom.

  3. I appreciate this piece very much. I would like to point out that feeling extreme sympathy does not in and of itself mean that one lacks a moral compass. Some people are just more sensitive than others. If someone tells me of a physical pain they have I experience that pain in my own body. I can be a right-wing Israeli settler, believing in the Jewish right to all of the land of Israel and still feel sorry for children in Gaza. I am baal teshuvah and am sometimes disappointed in the frum world for not feeling more sympathy for others outside of their world. For example, I was once involved in a project to help prevent sex trafficking of young girls in Asia. I visited orphanages where pre-pubescent girls had already been trafficked and rescued. Whilst in Asia, I met a FFB woman who asked what I was doing. Her response was, “why do you care about them?”. I was thinking how could someone not care. I realise that Jewish history has understandably made us rather insular as a people, but I think that it’s time for us to look outwards as well. Caring is good. It is the selective and hypocrytical caring that is problematic. Israel is called an apartheid nation, but really the largest apartheid nation in the world is India, with 160 million untouchables, who regularly suffer violence, humiliation and severe economic restrictions. Yet who cares about them in the enlightened West? We need more caring, not less.