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Parsha Korach
By Jeff Fischer

     Since January of this year, over 1500 rockets have been fired from Gaza and neighboring countries into Israel.  The vast majority between May tenth through the thirteenth.  Were these aimed at military bases?  No! They were fired indiscriminately into Israel, aimed at civilian targets. Thankfully, most were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome.  A significant number fell into Gaza causing injury and death among their civilian population. Several, however, did strike within Israel with loss of property and life.  In response, Israel launched Operation Shield and Arrow.  During this and previous defensive operations, Israel tries to take out terrorist launch sites, tunnels, ammunition stockpiles, and terrorist leaders.  And while Israel attempts to strike only at known terrorist areas to minimize collateral damage, this is extremely difficult as most of these sites are strategically located within the civilian population.

     One of the policies adopted by the IDF to try to minimize loss of life is to drop leaflets, urging the civilian population to leave a building or an area before an airstrike is launched.  While Israel has been condemned by many countries for defending itself, I am aware of no other conflict in the world where one country goes to such lengths to try to minimize enemy losses. And let’s face it, the inhabitants of Gaza, whether active terrorist or civilians are almost all committed to the destruction of the State of Israel.  I don’t think Russia warns Ukrainian civilians to leave a building before an airstrike.  I don’t believe the United States ever warned German or Japanese civilians to leave an area before a bombing raid.  This is a unique policy, and one that seems to be reflective of the actions of Moses in this week’s Parsha.

     This week we read Parsha Korach.  Korach is the leader of a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Korach, along with Dathan and Abiram challenge Moses’s leadership and the granting of the priesthood to Aaron and his sons.  Joining them are 250 distinguished members of the community, who offer burning incense to prove their worthiness for the priesthood.  In the end, the earth opens and swallows the mutineers along with their entire families.  A fire subsequently consumes the incense offerers.  As further proof of Aaron’s legitimacy, God has Aaron’s staff miraculously sprout flowers and almonds.

Just prior to this punishment, we read that God tells Moses to, "Speak to the congregation saying, 'Withdraw from the dwelling of Korach, Dathan and Abiram.'"  Moses arose and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. He spoke to the congregation saying, "Please get away from the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything of theirs, lest you perish because of all their sins.  So they withdrew from around the dwelling of Korach, Dathan, and Abiram…

     Here we see the reverence for life and the attempt by God and subsequently Moses to minimize collateral damage and loss of life by first warning the congregation to stay away from the tents of the insurrectionists.  It is only after those in the congregation who support Moses separate themselves from the mutineers that the land opens and swallows the rebels.

It has been said that war is hell and when it comes to war, there are no rules.  That is not a concept we learn from Torah.  While Israel will always stive to avoid conflict and work towards a peaceful settlement of differences, it will also defend the life and property of its citizens.  Yet it does so with a reverence for all life, even the lives of those who are sworn enemies of Israel’s right to exist.  Shabbat Shalom


Parsha Matot-Massei
By Jeff Fischer

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.  We have all heard that phrase.  Probably first espoused in the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian legal text composed about 1755–1750 BCE purportedly by Hammurabi, sixth king of the First Dynasty of Babylon.  This legal document prescribes an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth when one man destroys another's property. Punishments determined by this law could be transferred to the sons of the wrongdoer. For example, the death of a homeowner in a house collapse necessitates the death of the house's builder. If the homeowner's son died, the builder's son must die as well.  We assume if you injured someone resulting in the loss of use of a hand, your hand would be similarly injured.

We also see similar phrases in the Torah. In Exodus 21 and Leviticus 24 the phrase reads an eye under/in place of an eye while a slightly different phrase literally "eye for an eye; tooth for a tooth" is used in Deuteronomy 19.

The Talmud interprets these verses and similar expressions as mandating monetary compensation in tort cases and argues against the interpretations that the Bible verses refer to physical retaliation in kind. They argue that such an interpretation would be inapplicable to blind or eyeless offenders. Since the Torah requires that penalties be universally applicable, the phrase cannot be interpreted in this manner. Therefore, an alternative, monetary compensation, is required. The amount to be paid is based on the degree of loss.

The Oral Law explains, based upon the biblical verses, that the Bible mandates a sophisticated five-part monetary form of compensation, consisting of payment for "Damages, Pain, Medical Expenses, Incapacitation, and Mental Anguish."  The Bible allows for kofer (a monetary payment) to take the place of a bodily punishment for any crime… except murder.

In this week’s Parsha, Matot-Masei, we read how the promised land is to be divided among the 12 tribes.  The Levites are not given a parcel of land, however, there are to be 42 cities established across the land for the Levites to live. There were an additional six cities of refuge to be established.  Three west of the Jordan and three east of the Jordan.  One in the North, one in the south and one in the middle.  The Talmud tells us these walled cities were to have good roads that lead into the city, and they were to be well maintained. The purpose of these cities- to serve as a place of refuge, where a murderer could flee.

The murder of an individual is a serious offence in the bible.  One that mandates the death of the murderer. As previously stated, it is the only crime where monetary payment may not be substituted for the punishment of death.  But what if you killed someone, but it was an accident?  There was no premeditation.  It was an unfortunate accident that resulted in the death of another person. The Torah allows these individuals to flee to one of the cities of refuge where they are to live without the fear of death from retaliation by the murdered persons family.  Once they arrive, there is a trial, and if the death was deemed accidental, they must remain in the city until the death of the High Priest, after which they may return to their previous life.

Although one can look at these refuge cities as a type of jail, in truth, life there was fairly normal.  Their families would join them.  If they were Torah scholars, their teachers would also have to join them so they could continue their studies. Once the High Priest died, they were allowed to rejoin their previous lives without further penalty or stigma. 

Yes, the death was accidental, but when it comes to human life- you should have been more careful.  You may retain a normal life, but you must do so within a refuge city.  While not punitive, it does serve to remind the individual that a life was lost. Torah Law is less interested in punishing the wrongdoer and more concerned with righting the wrong caused by their acts, making restitution for the damage caused, and having the criminal repent from their evil ways and return to living a useful, productive, and honest life.   Perhaps our present criminal justice system could learn from the lessons of our Torah.  Shabbat Shalom

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