Rabbi Yossi Slotnick
Former Rosh Kollel in Cape Town (1997-1998)
Currently Ra”m in Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa
Is there is room for mercy in the laws of the murderer?
In This week’s Parsha the Torah describes, with strong words, the communal responsibility to bring a killer to justice:
“Moreover you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death; but he shall be put to death. And you shall accept no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge… You shall not thus pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of him who shed it. (Numbers, 35)
The verses were written emphatically and do not allow for any compassion in the case of a murderer. The message that emerges is that there is no room for leniency in the laws of the killer and we must always exhaust the law. Although this is what we hear here, we can see a very different story elsewhere in the Bible.
Contrary to the norm, I want to share with you a question, not an idea or interpretation, and I bring the things not to resolve the tension but to put the question for you to ponder.
In the Book of Samuel, we hear about the tense relationship between King David and his son Absalom. Following the killing Amnon, David sent Absalom away, causing him great pain. Yoav Ben Zuria wanted to repair the relationship between the King and Absalom, and therefore sent the Wise Woman of Tekoa to the King in order to show him the importance of reconciliation. Her job was to persuade the king to rule on a fabricated story of the killing of her son, and then show him the parallels between this ruling and his attitude toward his son Absalom. It is beyond the scope of this short essay to discuss the many aspects of this story, and I will only briefly describe the story the woman told the king and his ruling on the matter.
When the woman of Teko′a came to the king, she … said, “Help, O king.” And the king said to her, “What is your trouble?” She answered, “Alas, I am a widow; my husband is dead. And your handmaid had two sons, and they quarreled with one another in the field; there was no one to part them, and one struck the other and killed him. And now the whole family has risen against your handmaid, and they say, ‘Give up the man who struck his brother that we may kill him for the life of his brother whom he slew’; and so they would destroy the heir also. Thus they would quench my coal which is left, and leave to my husband neither name nor remnant upon the face of the earth.” (2 Samuel 14)
The woman describes how during a fight her one son killed his brother. Based on the law cited in this week’s Parasha her family wanted to redeem the blood of the victim, and kill the murderer. The woman requested that the king pardon her son.
At first the king tried to avoid such a ruling and said “Go to your house, and I will give orders concerning you.” (ibid. 8), but the woman did not concede and said “On me be the guilt, my lord the king, and on my father’s house; let the king and his throne be guiltless.” (ibid. 9) It seems that the woman realized that the king is afraid of such a ruling because of the sin it involves. It is likely that she is insinuating to what we learnt in our Parasha that the lack of punishment would pollute the land. The woman states that she would take the punishment on herself and it will not have negative consequences for the King and his kingdom. Eventually King relents and declares, “As the Lord lives, not one hair of your son shall fall to the ground.” (ibid, 11) the plea of the woman helped, the king took pity on her son and ruled that he would not be executed.
No doubt we feel empathy for the woman and her request, and solidarity with the ruling of David who subordinated the law to the need for mercy. The resounding question is the tension of this ruling with the uncompromising manner the Torah demanded. How could David choose compassion over justice? This is both a moral question and a legal one – by what authority does David rule in contrast to the law of the Torah.
Radak, in his commentary to Samuel, gives a partial answer to this question. He understands the case as a situation in which there is no family responsibility for blood vengeance, and they want to kill the son in order to steal the inheritance of brothers. According to this interpretation, the courts indeed should hear the murder case and give justice to the victim, but the woman’s request is to provide protection for her son against the family and not from the Law.
Ralba”g in his commentary goes in another direction, and states “It might also be that even though he deserves the death penalty by laws of the Torah, the king ability has the ability to save him as a temporary order.” His contention is that the king is not necessarily subject to the laws of the Torah and can, according to the needs time, temporarily change the laws of the Torah. While plausible, this answer does not explain why David felt the need to change the Law of the Torah? Is the will to show compassion for the mother reason enough to deviate from the Torah?
As I said at the outset is not my aim to solve the question but to raise it! Be mindful of the tension between justice and mercy, and ask yourself how the law fits into life