The good news is our parashah’s promise, “If you obey these rules… God will love and bless you.” The bad news is that “these rules” include the commandment to destroy the Canaanites “showing them no pity.” Does God really revel in the wholesale destruction of others?
“Yes,” say biblical literalists, “If the Bible says it, it must be so; the Bible is inerrant.” But the Bible is quite “errant,” since as much as it is God talking, it is also us hearing, and the people who wrote it down many centuries ago couldn’t hear more than their age allowed. The point of ongoing Jewish commentary is to help later ages hear better – and our commentators disassociate “these rules” from their original military context, insisting, that what God really wants is love.
The Malbim quotes Maimonides (Rambam) who differentiates two kinds of love. Love of God, as commanded in the Sh’ma (“You shall love Adonai your God”) is exemplified with mitzvot that have no earthly use, like putting a m’zuzah on our door. True, a m’zuzah may benefit us – reminding us, perhaps, of the sanctity of home — but we affix it just because God commands it: as when a loving parent says, “Do me a favor,” and we just do it. This love, says Rambam, gains us nothing here on earth. We are rewarded in the world to come.
The second kind of love is what human beings owe each other. Not all that long ago, it was the norm for people in power to enslave or even slaughter others without compunction. Maimonides reminds us that God rejected that behavior, by expressly prohibiting murder, rape, and even just ripping off an anonymous customer who wanders into our store. God rewards this love also in the world to come, but unlike the m’zuzah kind of mitzvah, showing love to human beings benefits us in the here and now, with a just and safe society.
So some mitzvot show love of God; others, love of neighbor. Neighborly love gets subdivided into prohibitions that entail physical pain (torture) or death (murder); and those that entail only monetary damages (cheating customers). In the evolutionary scheme of things, the first category enters our awareness sooner than the second. When word reached us recently of slave-like conditions in Chinese labor camps that make goods bound for America, we recoiled. Ongoing persecution in North Africa led this year to a reaffirmation of the1993 UN Convention Against Torture. Increasingly, that is to say, countries of conscience recognize slavery, torture, and murder as inhuman.
The evils of financial sin, by contrast, have barely dented our awareness. Now that we know how Chinese workers are being brutalized, will we protest their conditions by boycotting their goods? Hardly. Other than degree, there is no difference between an average citizen saving money by buying merchandise made by slaves, and an unscrupulous business ripping off billions from the public. Both are instances of economic evil.
How fascinating, then, to find Rashi calling economic moral prohibitions, “light commandments that we walk all over,” because compared to murder and mayhem, they seem miniscule.
The literal reading of Torah to allow mass murder and torture was put to rest with rabbinic interpretation centuries ago. But we still “walk all over” the prohibition against immoral commerce. And the two are related: if it cuts consumer prices and raises corporate earnings, even “ordinary” torture in China will start looking not so bad.
Turning a blind eye to economic moral shortcuts contaminates society until no society is left. Relaxing our fight on the moral frontier of finance threatens the moral heartland with erosion.