People long for decisive leadership. President Obama is for example often criticized for being overly professorial, consulting with too many advisors, and weighing options for days or even weeks. Often the press reports that the American people long for quick, for a leader who will stand up and offer us a single, unwavering direction.
Yet even the greatest of leaders, Moses, is lacking in decisiveness and occasionally turns to others. In four instances Moses appears baffled by questions or situations and in fact asks his most trusted friend, God, for guidance. Interestingly three of these four instances deal with death. One deals with the question of ritual impurity brought about by contacting a corpse. Two deal with questions of capital crimes and the final example regards laws of inheritance. Here are those examples.
In Numbers 27 Zelophehad dies and leaves no male heirs. His daughters approach Moses and ask that the family inheritance therefore go to them. They argue that they should be allowed to inherit their father’s land. Moses asks God for advice. God responds: “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just…”
In Numbers 9 some men were thought to be impure because they had come into contact with a corpse. They therefore could not offer the Passover sacrifice. Moses is unsure how to rule and says, “Stand by, and let me hear what instructions the Lord gives about you.” God offers a compromise. They can offer the Passover sacrifice but must wait a month. They can celebrate Passover during the following month.
And in Numbers 15 and in this week’s portion, in Leviticus 24, questions regarding capital crimes are addressed. In Numbers a man collects wood on the Sabbath day. Is this a violation of the laws of Shabbat? He is placed into custody. Moses is unsure how to rule. In Leviticus a man curses God. He is also placed into custody. What is his punishment? Moses again inquires of God. In both instances God rules harshly. These are capital crimes punishable by stoning.
Despite the troubling punishment for these apparent small crimes, I wish to draw contemporary lessons from these examples. Here are the values I read from these stories. It is especially good to pause and be deliberative when dealing with questions of capital crimes. In these final examples it is not a lack of decisiveness but instead a deliberateness that Moses exhibits. With regard to the taking of a human life, even when justified, and even when an enemy, we must be purposeful and deliberative. Quick and decisive might be emotionally satisfying but they are not ethically justified.
And thus the tracking and killing of Osama bin Laden appears to live up to Moses’ example and the best in American values. Yet I do not agree with our politicians and commentators that justice has been served. A justified punishment has been rendered but justice for the victims and their families, or for that matter our country, can never be fully realized. Perhaps we have gained a measure of deterrence. A rebalancing of the scales however can never be achieved.
With regard to our leaders, no person is wholly righteous. No president is perfect. Still I desire a president who has trouble sleeping when he sends men into harm’s way. I desire a leader who is thoughtful and deliberative. Making a judgment of capital punishment must never be determined lightly. It can only be made after consultation and deliberation.
This is the lesson we glean from our Torah portion and Moses’ example. We may have yearned for quick and decisive punishment, but after ten years we are instead left with slow and careful. Furthermore, it will take even more slow, careful, and especially thoughtful work and many more years to rid the world of bin Laden’s memory and the ideology he represents.
When speaking of our enemies and those responsible for great evils, Jewish tradition assigns the inscription, yimach shmo v’zichro—may his name and memory be blotted out. And such is my wish this week. May the memory of bin Laden be washed away by the ocean’s waves. May the ideology he fostered be forever blotted out from our country’s shores—and every nation’s borders.