Respecting life, liberty, and the pursuits: The Sixth Commandment

The Ten Commandments: A series

Jewish Family Identity Forum

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer, August 2010

Candace R. Kwiatek

The problem with translations is that they can be misleading, missing the nuances or peculiarities of the original language. In the case of the Sixth Commandment, however, the King James version of the Bible isn’t just misleading, it is completely wrong.

The command does not say “Thou shalt not kill.” Rather, the Hebrew, lo tirtzach, clearly states “You shall not murder”: do not deliberately target and take innocent human life.

In Broken Tablets, Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman notes that the impulse to murder is interwoven with human history from its very beginnings: “Cain murdering Abel, Esau wanting to murder Jacob, and Joseph the victim of attempted murder by his brothers. Shimon and Levi murder all the men of Shechem to avenge the rape of their sister. King David sends Uriah to his death so that he may take this faithful soldier’s wife… it falls to Sarah to do (Isaac’s) attempted murder for him: she banishes Hagar and Ishmael to the desert. Yael murders the enemy captain, Sisera…and there is always Jezebel…killing all those who stand in her way.”

Murder-filled headlines today from inner cities to suburban neighborhoods suggest that the human condition hasn’t really changed.

So what makes murder wrong? You might say that you don’t like it, that you can’t imagine any circumstance that would drive you to such an extreme.

Carl Lee Hailey, in the famous John Grisham novel, A Time to Kill, probably thought the same before his little girl was raped. His dislike didn’t stop him from murdering the rapist.

You might subscribe to the Golden Rule or Rabbi Hillel’s adage (the Silver Rule), “Do not do unto others that which you do not want done unto you,” choosing not to murder for fear of retribution.

The problem is, there are religious and political fanatics, gang members and drug dealers, and many others for whom murder is an acceptable way of life. While they may work for you, the Golden and Silver Rules aren’t relevant for them.

You might believe the laws of society, in the interest of social order, are the stopgap to murder, but think again. Nazi Germany redefined Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and others as “subhuman,” who were then by their definition killed, not murdered.

Hamas redefines all Israelis as soldiers, and therefore legitimate targets for murderous violence.

The problem is that any human-centered identification of murder as unacceptable — personal preference, universal motto, legal statute — is, by definition, relative.

“Murder” to one person may be “killing” to another.

The only absolute, objective reason that makes murder wrong is that God said so.

Murder is wrong first and foremost because it challenges God’s sovereignty over life and death. As the Torah teaches, life is a gift from God from Creation to this very moment. Who are we to steal or destroy God’s gift?

Furthermore, in the story of Adam and Eve we learn that humans are created in the image of God.

“Since the human gift of life is endowed with the spark of divinity that makes us different from all other life,” writes Rachel Mikva in Broken Tablets, “to take another life wrongfully can be…viewed as the murdering of something divine.”

Murder also has broad societal implications. According to our tradition, in the first Creation story of humans, God fashions a single soul to teach us that each human is the seed of an entire world while murder is the destruction of an entire world.

This theme continues in commentaries on the murder of Abel by Cain. In Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, the rabbis of the Talmud note that the literal Hebrew “The voice of your brother’s bloods cry out to Me from the ground” refers not only to Abel’s blood but to the “blood” descendants he would never have.

For most, it would seem that discussion of the Sixth Commandment is essentially academic. But a quick glance at other traditional sources suggests that murder, while it always involves a weapon, does not always result in a dead body.

Proverbs 18:21 offers a clue: “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” The tongue can be deadly when it is used to publicly criticize or embarrass someone.

Even more lethal is the tongue when it is engaged in gossip. In fact, our sages conclude that gossip is akin to the three worst sins of murder, idolatry, and adultery (Erechin 15b), because it destroys not only the target, but the gossiper and listener as well.

Because the tongue is so powerful, 31 of the 613 mitzvot, according to the Chofetz Chaim, and 11 of the 43 sins enumerated in the Al Chet confessional prayer have to do with the harm caused by speech.

Mikva notes that in our tradition, other kinds of assaults against people are also seen as murderous. “Some, like rape, obviously destroy aspects of life that cannot be recovered…If you cause people to lose their livelihood…If you pretend to be a scholar and hand down halachic (Jewish legal) decisions without having attained the proper level of wisdom, or if you have the knowledge and experience yet refrain from teaching, you strike down many students. Even a host who fails to provide travelers with sufficient provisions and an escort to ensure their safety is described as a shedder of blood.”

You can murder a life, a reputation, emotional well-being, hope, and faith. Murder means destroying a bit of that which makes us human.

What we learn is that only by truly living a life that sees the image of God in others, that respects others’ physical and emotional lives, and that guards others’ liberties and the right to their own pursuits, do we truly obey God’s command, “You shall not murder.”

Family Discussion: Pick someone outside of your immediate family with whom you interact and identify how you respect their life, liberty, and personal pursuits.


Literature to share

Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me by Lisa Cook: This memoir captures the life of a new bride who moves from L.A. to Nagoya, Japan as her husband takes on a two-year teaching position there. Indulged all her life — manicures, daily shopping, housekeeper, restaurants — the author discovers her foreign circumstances are nothing like the exotic getaway she imagined. Loneliness, frustration, and the challenges of living abroad in a non-Western culture are captured in this delightful tale of personal transformation.

Keeping Israel Safe by Barbara Sofer: This little treasure targeted to the tweens crowd explores the facets of Israel’s Defense Forces. A quick historical overview of the biblical and modern Israeli military is followed by chapters on the air force, navy, army and some of their more famous exploits. Women in the military, basic training, and military alternatives are also explored in this well-crafted, photo-illustrated paperback.

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