Friday, May 6, 2011

Retribution and Restraint

I was driving home from the Twin Cities community's Holocaust remembrance service last Sunday evening, listening to MSNBC on my satellite radio. All of a sudden, the broadcast was interrupted by an announcement that in 15 minutes, the President would be making a special announcement, but that the details of that announcement were unknown. I walked in the door at home and quickly tuned my television to the news so that I could see what was so urgent. An hour or so later, the nation and the world knew that a CIA operation in Pakistan had resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.

After the President had spoken, the news cameras turned to the crowds forming outside the White House, at Ground Zero, and at other locations around the country where Americans, many of them young adults, were celebrating America's victory. I, however, felt uneasy. Now, don't get me wrong, I don't disagree with the need to have protected ourselves by bringing the life of another to an end. Judaism demands that. In din ha-rodef, the law of the pursuer (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 73a), we are told that after warning a would-be murderer, we are obligated to stop him, even if it results in his death. But I also thought of the midrash of our crossing the Sea of Reeds where the angels rejoiced at the deaths of the Egyptians and God reminded them that even the Egyptians were God's children. Later in the week, Rabbi Joe Black reminded me of the verse from Proverbs, "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles" (Proverbs 24:17).

This week, in Parashat Emor, we are reminded of the Jewish law of capital punishment: "If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death. One who kills a beast shall make restutition for it: life for life. If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him" (Leviticus 24:17-20). What I learned today, though, in preparing for tomorrow's Torah study at Temple Israel, is that an eye for an eye, in the Biblical law, was not one that promoted retribution, but rather restraint. In those days, one was likely to respond disproportionately to an injury or death and Torah seeks to limit our reaction, protecting our relationship with one another and by virtue of that, with God.

Was it too much for the U.S. military to have killed Osama bin Laden? No. But it is too much if we don't show proper restraint in our reaction to his death. As one 9/11 victim's survivor put it, this is a time for us to honor the memory of those whose lives were lost, not to celebrate the death of a mass murderer; he doesn't deserve that much recognition.

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