In synagogues all over the world, as we come to the end of the Book of Genesis, the story of Joseph and his brothers looms large. The Torah writes that Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him and tried to kill him. How is it possible that our ancestors wanted to kill their brother over a few dreams? Where are the morals of the progeny of Abraham? Though there are not many laws in the Book of Genesis, there is one that has been repeated twice — not to kill.
If we look closely at the verses, I think there is a hint as to where this violence comes from. The Torah goes out of its way to tell us where the story happened, in Shechem. This detail links it to the story that we read just before it which took place in the same location, in which Simon and Levi killed all the men in Shechem as revenge for the rape of their sister, Dina, by Shechem’s prince.
Ruben, who is the eldest, and therefore, in theory, is the leader, steps forward and tries to save Joseph. He fails and Judah steps up next. But Judah is not the next oldest, there are two brothers in between — Simon and Levi. Why don’t they step up to save Joseph? I believe it is because they are the ones who want to kill him. Not long before this, they killed all the men of Shechem. Simon and Levi, and the brothers who watched them, bring the resonance of the vindictive war they just fought to this episode with their brother, because when violence takes over, there is no stopping it from working its way into life, family and society. Very strong boundaries and safeguards are required in order to leave war on the battlefield. If not, then eventually one can end up killing a brother.
Recently, Yuval Castleman, an Israeli lawyer, was driving to work at the same time that a car carrying terrorists approached a bus stop in Jerusalem and started shooting. Two soldiers at the bus stop began shooting back at the terrorists. Castleman, who carries a handgun, got out of his car and approached from the other side of the road, shooting at the terrorists as well. When Castleman realized that the Israeli soldiers were coming toward him, thinking he was one of the terrorists, he got down on his knees, threw his gun on the ground, put his hands up in the air and opened his shirt so they could see he had no more weapons. While on his knees, one of the Israeli soldiers shot and killed him. The soldier who shot him was a member of the Hilltop Youth, an extremist group known for attacking Arab shepherds in Area C and forcing them to leave their villages.
I was not there, nor am I a court or judge. I can imagine that the pressures in a situation of attack are great and there is no clear thinking. Maybe everyone who has a gun or who is standing on the other side from you is a target. But we know that according to the law in Israel, one is not allowed to kill a person who is unarmed, on their knees begging for mercy, even if they are a terrorist. Even if such an act, in the heat of the moment, was somehow understandable, it has an impact and it comes from somewhere.
The holiday of Chanukah we celebrated not long ago celebrates the Kohanim, the priestly caste, who are children of Levi, fighting and winning a war against our enemies, the Greeks. Certainly, there are just wars, and theirs, as well as the one Israel is fighting today, are just wars and it is a mitzvah and obligation to fight them. War is by definition violent. There is a necessary moment of zealousness which is a necessary precursor of war; zealotry is the nature of the battlefield. But if that zealotry pervades society and family, such a nation is in danger of corrupting its very foundations of morality and human sensitivity. Golda Meir was referring to this when she famously said: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. But we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”
The Torah understood the danger of violence and zealotry, and the need for boundaries and safeguards, the need to leave violence on the battlefield. Following the war against the people of Midyan in the Book of Numbers, Moses tells the people that the soldiers must remain outside the camp of the Jewish people for seven days until they undergo the purification process of the red heifer. But the commentaries point out that such is not the law in the Torah. One who has come in contact with a dead body is only forbidden from entering the Tabernacle, not the entire camp.
The answer, I think, is that when we kill, even for the right reasons, it impacts us, it makes violence a bit less foreign, a bit less shocking. We must have cultural safeguards in order to retain one of the most important and central pillars of the Torah, that all people are made in the image of God.
Rabbi Hyim Shafner is the rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation (The Georgetown Synagogue) in Washington, D.C.