Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bo

The tenth and final plague is wrenching.  Who among us could imagine a worse punishment?  The death of a child is every parent’s worst nightmare.  It was Pharaoh’s as well.

“In the middle of the night the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle.  And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians—because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead.” (Exodus 12:29-30)

Such is the suffering of my enemies. The years in which we now live have given rise to many would be Pharaohs who seek to destroy all that we love.  There are too many who declare themselves our enemies.  Even though much has been accomplished to forestall their designs, we must remain forever vigilant.  Yet I wonder, can we sympathize with the pain of these Pharaohs while still remaining vigilant?

Let us be clear about the moral questions we face.  It is legitimate to kill our enemies.  Our nation’s leaders must continue to make every effort to protect us.  The Talmud admonishes us: “If someone comes to kill you, get up earlier to kill him first.”   Yet there is a moral distinction between the legitimacy of killing our enemies and celebrating this fact.  The celebration of the death of any human being is an act to be shunned.  Judaism teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image.  No one is greater than another because all human beings are descended from the same parents, namely Adam and Eve.  All life is precious.  Every life is of equal value.

We should be filled with remorse that we are forced to kill others in order to protect ourselves.   There is as well a distinction between killing to protect our nation’s citizens and killing to mete out justice.  In a democracy justice must remain the province of the courts not the military.   We have every moral right to kill in order to protect.  We do not have this same right to kill quickly and decisively in order to punish.  The killing, for example, of Osama bin Laden (y”s) was justified because it helps to prevent his minions from attacking us again.  We might never again be victimized by his genocidal aims.

It felt satisfying however because it appeared just punishment for his responsibility in the murder of our fellow New Yorkers, the far too many innocent people who were so ruthlessly murdered on 9-11.  This emotional satisfaction confounds our ethical judgments.  It comes to masquerade as moral legitimacy.  Make no mistake.  Punishment can only be justified when sanctioned by courts of justice, never by force of arms. 

I expect the military to protect me.  I expect judges and juries to punish those who wrong me.

Thus Pharaoh’s pain and suffering appears unjustified.  Forgive my chutzpah but the tenth plague seems unwarranted and overly harsh.  How can any wrong justify the taking of the life of a child, even the child of one as evil as Pharaoh, even the child of the enemy who seeks my destruction? 

These deaths satisfy only our emotional need for punishment at best, and revenge at worst.  The death of these countless Egyptians might be emotionally satisfying, but remain morally illegitimate.  Our tradition of course insists that we not celebrate their deaths.  At our seders we remove a drop of wine to signify the lessening of our joy.   We recognize the suffering even of our tormentors.  But can there ever be enough drops taken from our cups of wine to render this act legitimate?

Today we can have sympathy for the suffering of our enemies while not shying away from what must be done to protect ourselves. We must teach over and over again that it is never a sign of weakness to have sympathy for someone else’s pain.

We sympathize even with the pain of our enemies.  Still we refuse to ask the most important questions facing our age.  Everyday we read in our papers that another was killed in this never-ending war on terror, we must ask was this killing justified?  Did it live up to the moral measure of offering us more protection?  Or was it merely done to satisfy our emotional need for immediate punishment?

These are the questions of today.  Dare we ask these questions of our Torah as well?

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