Re’eh: A Cloak of Mercy

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12 Aug 2009

A triplet of deviation plays a starring role in our parsha [Chapter 13]:

First the false prophet [navi sheker]

If a prophet arises among you or a dreamer of a dream, and he gives you an omen or a miracle, .. And the omen or the miracle happens— the one he told you about—saying, “Let us go after other gods, that you do not know, and let us serve them.” Do not listen to the words of that prophet or to that dreamer of a dream, … And that prophet or that dreamer of a dream is to be executed, for he has uttered a fabrication about Ad-noy, your G-d— to mislead you from the way that Ad-noy, your G-d, commanded you to go upon, and you will eliminate the evil from within you.

Then the tempter [meisis]

If one shall incite you, [your brother, or the wife of your bosom, or your neighbor who is your soul mate,] clandestinely, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods” whom you never knew— neither you nor your forefathers. Do not be favorably inclined towards him, and do not listen to him; and do not view him compassionately … For you must surely execute him. .. for he sought to mislead you from Ad-noy, your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.

Then the city of idolaters [ir hanidachat]

If you hear in one of your cities that Ad-noy, your G-d, is giving you .. the following: “Men have gone out— unscrupulous—from among you, and they have misled the inhabitants of their city by saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’ that you do not know.” You must investigate, .. and if in fact the report is true and accurate— this abomination was committed among you. .. You must surely strike down the inhabitants of that city by the sword; annihilate it and everything that is in it, and its livestock by the sword.

What binds these three sections (1)?

For one, the obvious motif of misleading, i.e. falsely representing Divinity in order to intentionally distance another from authentic Divine desire. The last millennium has been no stranger to its share of contemporary false prophets espousing visions, notions and ideals that feel so right and remain ever so vacuous! Second, all three find Jews preying on fellow Jews wielding their influence abusively. [False] Piety (navi sheker), family (meisit) or status (ir handicahat). Power abusers of course, are as old as the human condition.

A curious line pops up at the end.

V’notan lecha rachamim verichamecha .. and He will be merciful toward you

One is not quick to associate the ir hanidachat with mercy. The clarion call for the do-gooders in this situation requires anti-mercy. The court proxy, those implementers of justice must evoke necessary cruelty and find from the deepest places of their beings, the strength to wipe out a city of Jews. Mercy seems out of place here.

A midrashic dispute [Tosefta, Sanhedrin, 14:1] sheds two lights. The context: the fate of the minor children in the city. Rabbi Akiva’s position is to save them:

What shall we fulfill with the verse v’notan lecha rachamim .. if it is to spare the elders, the verse already teaches “you shall smite”, if it is to spare the animals, it already states and the animals by the sword. What is the verse teaching and he shall give you mercy … this refers to the children

To Rabbi Akiva, the phrase v’natan lecha rachamim actually means that even amidst all the bloodshed, Hashem will provide (for you) room for mercy; i.e. you must spare the children. We may ask: according to Rabbi Akiva, why does the Torah formulate the child protection rule in such an oblique manner -why not state explicitly to save the children? Perhaps in this strange formulation resides the notion that the children here are not only to be saved for their sake, but also to give adults the opportunity to act mercifully – for even in the darkest of places, one must find room to practice mercy.

Rabbi Elizer holds a contrary view. He believes that the children share the fate of the city.

What shall we fulfill with the verse v’natan lecha rachamim …for perhaps Beit Din shall say: “if we declares this city as an ir hanidachat, then on the morrow their brothers and relatives will harbor hatred of us in their hearts”; Thus God says, I shall fill them [the relatives] with mercy and place love of Me in their hearts and they shall harbor no resentment and state that you have ruled truthfully.

Inevitably, Rabbi Eliezer reasons, those who implement this bloody halacha shall be showered with unwanted attention by the friends and relatives of those killed. Surely this shall evoke unbelievable enmity within klal yisrael. Should that alone not be enough of a reason to never invoke the halacha? Therefore, the Torah guarantees that those who do the will of Hashem shall be unnaturally cloaked with a veil of protective mercy. God shall place upon you mercy.

Netziv and Ohr HaChaim have a third most remarkable take on the phrase. War is brutal and those who kill are infected with natural de-sensitivity (2). Those who execute the judgment of the ir hanidachat must kill; as such they risk developing coarse and brutal personalities. Yet, shall the one who does the d’var Hashem suffer?

Thus God promises that he will cloak them, the messengers of the court with a veil of mercy (3) – combating the natural result that emanates from the killing. Similarly, Netziv explains why Pinchas who killed Zimri as a grand act of Kiddush Hashem receives the brit shalom, the covenant of peace – a jarring quid pro quo; You kill and I hand over to you a peaceful covenant?! Here also, the Torah is trying to teach that Pinchas needed Divine assistance to protect him from the natural outcome of his stellar actions (4) (5).

This last notion speaks volumes. So often we make cheshbonot, immense and often brilliant rational calculations, why doing the will of God will effect us adversely. Shabbat observance will minimize parnasa, while immense Talmud Torah will wreak havoc on domestic harmony and too much prayer can cause spiritual burnout.. I have heard so many and yet I surely have not heard them all – for the list is as long and deep as the very complexity of human nature.

And yet Hashem tells us: Stay the course. Even if it seems unpopular and counterproductive, stick with it. I shall watch over you and cloak you with mercy. May we merit it for ourselves and for our nation, speedily in our days.

Good Shabbos,
Asher Brander

1. We leave the moral issues of ir hanidachat for a different piece, iy”h
2. Cf. Ohr HaChaim for a dialogue he had with a group of yishmaelim rotzchim. Also, Chullin [105] teaches us that one with murderous intent should be a ritual slaughterer. The act of killing is either a function of, or serves to create a natural cruelty.
3. One must ask why does the Torah only mention this here and not with the seven nations and Amalek? Perhaps the Torah is teaching us that the greatest cruelty that can develop is when man fights/ or wars against one whom he should be closer with. The greatest potential of love and affection yields the greatest possible quotient of hate. The ir hanidachat is Jew against Jew.
4. Cf. Netziv who teaches that in the time of Micha , the covenant of peace was an overreach and that Eliyahu should have protested.
5. Interestingly, Dovid HaMelech [Chronicles, 22:8] may not build the beit Hamikdash because dam larov shafachta [he spilled much blood] . One must ask why Dovid is not privy to the same protections of Pinchas and the ir hanidachat emissary of justice. Perhaps the beit haMikdash is different or perhaps Dovid also fought milchemet reshut/kivush yachid, wars that were not absolutely mandated by halacha; thus the protective cloak did not apply.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles