Friday, July 20, 2012

Mattos-Masei - Do Not "Flatter" the Land

In Parshas Masei the Torah discusses the laws of murder (both intentional and non-intentional) and its penalties. Towards the end of this discussion, the Torah tells us that it is forbidden to accept a monetary ransom in order to exempt a murderer from his criminal penalties (i.e. execution in the case of intentional murder or exile to a city of refuge in the case of non-intentional murder).

The Torah then states (Number 35:33):
ולא תחניפו את הארץ אשר אתם בה, כי הדם הוא יחניף את הארץ ולארץ לא יכפר לדם אשר שפך בה כי אם בדם שפכו.
Translating this verse is difficult, because the root חנף, which is used twice in the verse, is being used in a very unconventional way. According to Rashi (based on Onkelos) the verse should be translated:
And you shall not bring guilt upon the land that you are in, for blood makes the land guilty, and the land cannot atone for the blood that is spilled within it except by the blood of he who spilled it.
The basic point of the verse is clear, a court is not permitted to accept alternate forms of compensation (literally, "כופר" - "atonement") for the crime of murder, for murder is a crime of such severity that failure to apply the prescribed penalty brings guilt upon the entire society. (The term ארץ - "land" - is frequently used to mean civilization or society (as opposed to literal earth), as in the well known phrase "דרך ארץ", literally "the way of the land", which is best translated as "civilized behavior.")

However, while this is clearly the basic meaning of the verse, it doesn't address why the Torah uses the terms "תחניפו" in such an unusual way. The conventional translation of חנופה is flattery, and a literal translation of the verse would be:
And you shall not flatter the land that you are in, for blood flatters the land....
What could this possibly mean?
Rav Moshe Feinstein

Rav Moshe Feinstein (d.1986) finds a profoundly important lesson in this apparently strange wording (ספר דרש משה):
הנכון לענ"ד דאף דכל המלכיות מקפידות על שפיכות דמים, מ"מ יש חילוק גדול בין קפידתם לאיסור ש"ד שבתורה. דקפידת המלכיות הוא מצד ישוב העולם... ולכן אם נדמה לו שאדרבה חברו מקלקל ישוב העולם לפי דעתו הסכלה, הורג לחברו. ומצד זה יש מלחמות בעולם, ועוד מצדיקים עצמם בחשבם שלא פעלו עול אלא עוד תקנו בזה. וגם ודאי אין מקפידים על חיי שעה כלל, ולא על חיי זקן, כידוע שאין הרופאים משתדלים כ"כ בעד זקן.
אבל איסור התורה הוא מצד חשיבות האדם, ולכן אף שאין צורך בו לישוב העולם נמי אסור להורגו באותו החומר עצמו. ואף לשוטה ואף לחיי שעה ישנו אותו האיסור עצמו ומותר בשביל זה לחלל שבת.
נמצא כשאחד הורג חברו מחמת שלפי דעתו מקלקל ישוב העולם, הוא מחניף לארץ כפשוטו. שלפי דעתו, האדם הוא טפל לארץ, ולא כהאמת, שהוא דרך התורה, שאדרבה הארץ טפל להאדם.
In my humble opinion, the proper explanation [of the unusual terminology in this verse] is that, while all nations prohibit murder, there is a great distinction between the prohibition of the nations and the Torah's prohibition against murder. The nations prohibit murder because of yishuv ha'olam  (lit. "settlement of the world", i.e. maintaining a stable functioning society).... Therefore, if it seems to a person, in his senseless opinion, that, on the contrary, his fellow man is detrimental to society, he will kill him. It is this that brings about wars in the world. Not only do they justify themselves as not committing a crime, but they see themselves as improving the world! Certainly they will not be concerned about the lives of those who are already close to death, or the lives of the elderly (as it is well-known that the doctors do not exert as much effort on behalf of the elderly).
The Torah's prohibition [of murder], however, is rooted in the inherent value of a human being. Therefore, even if he does not contribute to society, the prohibition of murder still applies to him with the same level of severity. The prohibition applies equally even to one who is mentally incompetent, or one who is close to death, and we are permitted to desecrate the Sabbath for their sake.
From this we understand that when a person murders his fellow man because he believes him to be detrimental to society, he is, in fact, "flattering" the land (i.e. society) in a literal sense. For, in his mind, the human being is secondary to society, in contradiction to the truth, which is the way of the Torah, that society is secondary to the human being.

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