Torah and Ethics – Weekly Words of Torah, Shoftim 5773

Insights into Parshat Shoftim of Rav Moshe Ganz, Ram Emeritus of Yeshivat Sha’alvim, by Rav Re’uven Ungar of Sha’alvim.

The halachot pertaining to war located at the conclusion of Parshat Shoftim contain two mitzvot whose juxtaposition foster interest. The first mitzvah- in the case of an obligatory war- forbids us to leave any enemies alive- lo techaye kol neshama. The second mitzvah prohibits the cutting down of trees during warfare.

The first mitzvah- such apparent cruelty. In the obligatory war waged against the 7 nations of Canaan we are required to eliminate not only the enemy combatants, but the entire civilian population as well!

The second mitzvah is amazing in its sensitivity. At a time of war, when the normal codes of conduct disappear and many people are dying, there is a concern for the fate of the trees.

Both of these mitzvot appear in the same Torah, side by side!

Apparently this juxtaposition hints at the relationshop between Torah and ethics.

Concerning the tension that exists between the Torah and the ethical sensitivities of a person, there are two possible extreme reactions. On one hand, a person who fervently desires to be a good person, will reject the Word of Hashem that appears to be unethical! Obviously, this is not the proper path. On the other hand, a person may maintain that any ethical sensitivities are meaningless and lack importance. Such feelings are the results of human hangups and psychological frailties. They differ from society to society and are expressed in diverse forms in different historical eras. This proves their lack of integrity. Thus, we have Torah, and Torah alone, to guide us. We perform what we are commanded to do, refrain from the forbidden, and any question that arises from ethical sensitivity is devoid of validity.

This is clearly not the correct path either. We are unable, and do not want to part from our ethical feelings! Firstly, our acceptance of The Yoke of Heaven, if it is not predicated on receiving a reward, is based on our internal desire to be good. How can we suddenly relinquish this internal desire to cling to the good? In addition, the Torah encourages us to heed our ethical feelings. For example, the Torah does not suffice by commanding us to return to an indigent individual a guarantee of a loan (avot); the Torah adds “with what will he sleep?” (Shmot 22: 26). This induces the heart to fulfill this mitzvah. According to the Ramban, the mitzvah of “and you shall do what is proper and good” (Devarim 6:18) is predicated upon our ethical understanding to establish what is proper and good!

The difficult question remains. How do we comprehend the gaps that exist in certain places between the Torah and ethical sensitivity? The juxtaposition compels us to realize that the Torah demands from us exalted ethical feelings and at the same time, we are required to act in seeming opposition to what is ethical. It appears that precisely this mitzvah can open a path of understanding.

The ethical sensitivity of a person is a positive and very important feeling. Many times it directs us in our lives- and for good reason. Yet, we must recognize its limitations. One of its clear limitations is its tendency to operate intensely in the short term, and with less intensity for the long term. An action that is good in the here and now, but will generate serious ramifications over the course of time, will frequently be accepted by ethical sensitivities. The converse as well- something which is negative in the present, will not be honored by such sensitivities, even if it contains blessings further down the road.

In such a situation, the authentic and intrinsic good will state that that the overall picture must be taken into account, and to judge accordingly, even if one is forced to ignore limited ethical feelings. This is similar to a parent who suspends the feelings of mercy that would prevent him from bringing his son to a necessary operation because of the fear of pain that the operation will incur.

In reference to the prohibition of permitting members of the 7 nations to live, the Torah explains that this is in order to prevent them from teaching us to perform the abominations that they perpetrated for their gods. A great danger faced the Jewish People prior to the conquest of The Land; assimilating the values of the local culture. If G-d forbid this would come to pass, the Jewish People would not be able to fulfill the spiritual task that Hashem placed upon us to perform.

The Jewish People provided the civilized world with the ethical principles that applicable today. This was done via Christianity, which introduced principles of ethics (taken from the Torah) to a pagan world. This generated a sea change in the attitudes and actions of the nations of the world. The height of Roman culture was attending bouts between hungry lions and prisoners. The concepts that were conveyed from the world of the Tanach fostered the change.

We are to be a light to the nations, to show them the way to Hashem and His ways. This will not come to pass if the Jewish People assimilates with the 7 nations, upon entering The Land. Therefore, for the sake of the world, it was necessary to eliminate these nations (unless they accepted upon themselves the Noachide Code- see the Rambam, Hilchot Melachim, Chapter 6- or if they would leave The Land of Israel).

A human being is incapable of making such tremendous calculations. But once The King of the World has made such a calculation, it is easier for us to comprehend it. We can understand that even though in a short term view the mitzvah of eliminating the 7 nations is anti-ethical, a broader perspective conveyed by the Torah clarifies the ethical obligation contained within the mitzvah. Even if ones feelings do not accept this- due to the long range of this calculation- the calculation is correct. This mitzvah does not stem, G-d forbid from lack of ethics- rather it stems precisely from a great desire to do good.

These concepts we can derive from the juxtaposition of these two mitzvot. If one derives from the mitzvah of eliminating the 7 nations that the Torah is a set of laws without consideration of ethics, the next mitzvah- not destroying trees- negates this premise. This displays the ethical sensitivity of the Torah and serves as a springboard to seek the ethical component of other mitzvot as well, including that of eliminating the 7 nations.