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Torah Commentary
Eikev (August 27, 2016)

Bettijane Eisenpreis

No Mercy

Even in normal times, the above quotation from Deuteronomy would be cringe-inducing.

There’s no doubt about it: God tells the Israelites to destroy all the inhabitants of the Promised Land. Never mind that it didn’t happen. Never mind that this probably was written when the reverse was taking place: The inhabitants of the countries where Jews lived were intent on destroying them. Still, the instructions are clear: The Israelites are to show no mercy to “the peoples that the Lord your God delivers unto you.”

But I am not writing this in normal times. On June 12, in Orlando, Florida, in the worst case of gun violence by a single person in recent American history, a lone gunman killed 49 people and wounded scores more, all in “the name of God the merciful.”

We probably would all agree that it is not okay to commit the kind of wholesale murder invoked in Deuteronomy 7:16-18 against any group, whether they be practitioners of a specific religion, people from another country or people with red hair. We have seen where that road leads.

We are reasonable people. The thought of wiping out a whole group we don’t even know is, and should be, abhorrent to us. And this is the same Book — the Bible — that tells us, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)

The Sages say of the Torah, “Turn it, and turn it again, for everything is in it.” We can read this two ways: Either every word of Torah is equally important, or if the words you are reading do not seem helpful in this time and place, then you are free to seek other words by which to live.

That latter interpretation shows the genius of the Torah. To the writers of the admonition to destroy all the inhabitants of the Promised Land, it was vital that the fledgling nation have a safe place to develop and practice their religion, free from outside influences. However, the method prescribed here was not only extreme; it was impossible to put into effect. The only times when Jews lived apart from the other inhabitants of the Land, it was the ruling class, not the Jews, who forced them into ghettos and oppressed them.

We do not have to look far to find comfort. In another part of Parashat Eikev (Deuteronomy10:12), Moses tells the Children of Israel: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today for your good.”

Thanks, Moses, that’s more like it. I know I don’t always keep all the Commandments as faithfully as I might, but I sure will try. Wholesale murder like that in Orlando is a sin against God as well as human beings, and the correct response, as we saw in the days following the massacre, is to show compassion for the individuals and the community left behind.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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