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Hirsch At Your Table

God’s Role in the Justice System

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary


Rabbi Matityahu Clark

ומכה בהמה ישלמנה ומכה אדם יומת. משפט אחד יהיה לכם כגר וכאזרח יהיה כי אני ד’ אלוקיכם. (Lv. 24:21-22)
In the midst of the incident of the מקלל ה', the Torah repeats the prohibition against killing another human being or a neighbor’s cattle. In the case of property, such as cattle, the one who causes damage must compensate the owner for the loss. One who injures another person is also required to pay compensation for that injury. If however, one kills a human being, the punishment is death.

There is a major difference between killing an animal/מכה בהמה, and killing a human being, which derives from the difference between נפש אדם/the soul of a person, andנפש בהמה/the soul of an animal. Jewish law equates killing an animal and injuring a human being. Like an animal, a person’s limb is treated as an instrument that serves his needs. As such, in the case of injury, it is possible to compensate a person for the loss. However, when dealing with נפש האדם, the punishment is more severe because the נפש represents the essence of man. And within the essence of man inheres the Divine image. Therefore, killing a person extinguishes the part of man that is Godly. For this reason, there is no possibility of compensation, and the only recourse is to execute the killer.

(The word מכה is from the root נ-כ-ה which means "to strike blows." The word נפש is from the root נ-פ-ש "to return to spiritual repose." The noun as listed in this verse refers to the soul or the will of action and thought. The word בהמה is from the root ב-ה-ם "to subordinate." A domesticated animal is subordinated to its owner.)

The question remains: why does the Torah present this law in the middle of the story of the מקלל ה'? The Torah here is defining the role of God in the human system of justice. God embodies the attribute of justice. Removing God, as did the מקלל, means uprooting justice. Without God’s benevolent hand, biological life depends exclusively on physical power; in those conditions, there is no justice, no right or wrong. In the absence of God man is just another organism, another part of the physical world. Some organisms are more complex than others, but they are all, ultimately, objects. The Godly aspect of a person is what gives him free will, which in turn opens up the possibility of justice and morality. Without God, there can be no free will and no justice.

This is why, in the midst of the incident of מקלל ה', the Torah repeats the laws relating to harming or killing. The superiority of human life over animal life reflects that man is created in God’s image. Cursing God is tantamount to cursing man and depriving him of his most cherished characteristic: צלם אלוקים, the image of God.

(The word מקלל is from the root ק-ל-ל "to diminish substance." The word צלם is from the root צ-ל-ם "to complete form," referring to God’s image. Its phonetic cognate is ש-ל-ם "to harmonize" and make complete.)

Just as all rights and values of human beings are rooted in God, so all humans are treated as equals before the law. Legal proceedings, administrative details, examination of witnesses and all aspects of the judicial system must be applied evenly among citizens and foreigners.

Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
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