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by Jacob Solomon

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You shall kill the inhabitants of that town by the sword…in order that G-d… will give you mercy, and have mercy on you, and increase you (13:16,18).


This quotation is from the section about Ir Hanidachat - the 'doomed city' - where it is decreed that the inhabitants of that city must be put to death for following idol worship. The Torah, as explained by the Talmud (Sanhedrin 111b), rules that the city needs the following characteristics to qualify as an Ir Hanidachat. Firstly, the initiative to follow idol worship must come from people from that very city. Secondly, those individuals must have misled the majority of a city's male population into idolatry.

It must be emphasized, at the outset, that the Parasha gives us a frightening insight into the consequences of following Avoda Zara: 'They even burn in fire their sons and daughters to their own gods' (12:31). R. Akiva said that he had personally witnessed an idolater tie up and throw his own father to savage dogs, as an act of idol worship (Sifre, 81). Indeed, even within living memory, a third of the Jewish population were foully put to death under Nazism. This doctrine was presented to the Aryan population as what could at least in spirit be called idol worship - the ultimate ideal in social engineering. What objectively was the murder of innocents was transformed into a 'call' of 'highest duty'.

However Avoda Zara on the grand scale of Ir Hanidachat is a piece of fiction - at least according to the Talmud. 'There never was a doomed city, not will there ever be a doomed city' (Sanhedrin 71a). So why, continues the Talmud, has it been included in the Torah at all? The answer given is, 'to give Divine Reward to those who study the issue in depth' (ibid.). The Talmud then proceeds to give a Halachic exposition of the 'doomed city'.

In addition, however, the 'doomed city' has much to tell us in the sphere of Middot - character traits. Indeed the spirit of the laws of Ir Hanidachat appears to be relevant to more common situations, as detailed below.

Consider the following scenario. A well-run high school admits a few students with strong and influential, but severely disturbed personalities They upset the balance of the school community. Their severe misconduct is beyond the coping skills of the faculty and student body. This includes offensive graffiti, violence, drug abuse, and threats to the rest of the community. As their influence diffuses into that society, a new anti-school, anti-learning, and anti-social ideology establishes its grip on the entire student body. A new, insidious hierarchy that rewards bullying and maximum class disruption de facto runs the school. Over a few years the poisonous atmosphere affects and severely depresses the entire school community, rendering it not only functionless as an educational establishment, but as a negative force in society as a whole.

Following adverse publicity, government inspectors investigate the school, in every possible detail. They discover that a few of students do succeed against the odds, in the struggle to progress in their studies. They also note that the teachers are well-meaning and devoted - doing their very best to improve the situation. However the overall picture emerges, leaving the inspectors no choice. In the public interest they have to recommend and enforce the immediate closure of that school, despite suffering caused by, for example, job losses.

Returning back to the heading quotation. For taking drastic action, the double expression - 'G-d… will give you mercy, and have mercy on you' needs explanation. When a person does an act a number of times, it becomes second nature. In the case in the Torah, this means that those who execute the multitudes of the Ir Hanidachat may well get a taste for cruelty and become immune to the suffering of others. In this context the Torah promises that G-d will give a new midat harachamim to those who perform His will - even in such extreme circumstances. Applied to the spirit of Ir Hanidachat in our example: it can mean the following. If those in authority have to take drastic action for what is indeed the public good, G-d will see to it that those people - acting from the highest of motives, will not become hardened to any future situation that they will be called upon to deal with.

The Talmud (Pesachim 8b) derives the principle of shiluchei mitva aynan nizakin - those who are in the process of carrying out a mitzva are given Divine protection from physical damage. In the light of the above discussion, this principle could be extended to include Divine protection from spritual damage as well…



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