The Death of Evil People

Mishnah, Sanhedrin: "The death of evil people is pleasant and beneficial for them, and pleasant and beneficial for the world.”

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth of the month – on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the Heavens were opened. And the rain was on the earth for forty days and forty nights” (Genesis 7:11-12).

Thus began the Flood – the Flood that, one hundred and twenty years earlier (Targum Yonatan to Genesis 6:3; Bamidbar Rabbah 14:12; Sifrei, Deuteronomy 43, et. al.; see also Rashi to Genesis 6:3), G-d had told Noah that He would bring upon the earth to destroy the world that had become corrupt beyond hope of redemption.

Hebrew has five different words for rain, each with separate and distinct connotations: yoreh, malkosh, revivim, geshem, and matar.

Yoreh (which also means “shoot”, as in shoot an arrow) is the first rain of the season in Israel (expected about this time of the year, shortly after Sukkot) – thin raindrops which shoot down from the clouds like arrows.

Malkosh (from the root lekesh, the final crop of the spring/summer) is the last rain of the season (typically shortly before Pesach) – fat drops which fall slowly and are absorbed deep into the earth to keep it moist through the long, hot Israeli summer.

Revivim is related both to the verb ravav (“to shoot, to throw to a distance”) and to rav, (“abundance”). It is a very poetic word, appearing only six times in the Tanach, denoting abundant rain pouring down from the heavens, and which causes abundant crops.

By far the most usual words for “rain” are geshem and matar. Geshem refers to gashmiut – physicality or materialism; hence geshem denotes the physical attributes of rain. matar is perhaps related to the root נטר, with such cognates as natar (“protect, guard”) and matarah (“target, purpose”).

(The dagesh in the ט denotes a root-letter which has been absorbed, in this case a נ absorbed into the ט of the root נטר. That is to say, מַטָּרָה is equivalent to מַנְטָרָה.)

Matar usually denotes rains of blessing. In the second paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11:13-21), G-d promises “the rain of your Land in its appropriate season” as a reward for keeping the mitzvot; and warns us that if we turn away from G-d, then “there will be no rain” – both times using the word matar – that is, rains of blessing.

And so it is significant that when G-d gives Noah His final warning before the Flood, His words are “For in another seven days, I will bring rain on the earth…” (Genesis 7:4), using the verb mamtir – that is, I will bring מָטָר, matar, rains of blessing.

Indeed, whenever the Tanach uses the verb mamtir or derivatives thereof, it is invariably in one of two contexts. The first context is when G-d rains down blessings – such as when He promised to cause manna to rain down from Heaven on the Children of Israel (Exodus 16:4) and again when King David recalled that blessing (Psalms 78:24), when He warns of granting or withholding rains for the harvest (Amos 4:7), and when He withholds rains of blessing from a vineyard (Isaiah 5:6).

The other context is to destroy evil people – such as when “Hashem caused sulphur and fire to rain down on Sodom and on Gomorrah” (Genesis 19:23), when Moshe warned Pharaoh that “tomorrow at this time, I will cause very heavy hail, such as has never before been in Egypt, to rain down” (Exodus 9:18), when King David sings that G-d “will rain down coals on the wicked” (Psalms 11:6), and when He “will rain down torrential rain, hail-stones, fire, and sulphur” on Gog as a punishment for attacking Israel (Ezekiel 38:22).

It is also significant that when G-d told Noah that “…I will bring rain on the earth…”, He used the personal pronoun Anokhi rather than the more usual Ani. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888), commenting on Genesis 7:4, analyses the difference: “[T]he pronoun differentiation to Ani is highly characteristic. Anokhi is always used in cases where the ‘I’ does not place itself harshly against a person…, where it designates a ruling of G-d in which His Love and Grace is revealed… [T]he Anokhi here is infinitely significant. Although you see Me now bringing death and destruction over the whole human and animal world, nevertheless I remain in My Love and Benevolence, am, even at that moment, still the name ‘Anokhi’ Who embraces everything…and even this harshest treatment has only the happiness and well-being of the whole as its purpose”.

And even at this last moment before almost universal destruction, G-d still granted His creation a seven-day period of grace, a final chance for reprieve: G-d told Noah that “in another seven days, I will bring rain on the earth…” (Genesis 7:4), which the Targum Yonatan paraphrases as “I hereby grant you a postponement of seven days; if they will repent, then all will be forgiven them; and if they will not repent within these coming seven days, then I will bring rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights…”.

As the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 8:5) and the Midrash (Sifrei, Deuteronomy 220 and Tanhuma, Ki Teitze 1) say, “the death of evil people is pleasant and beneficial for them, and pleasant and beneficial for the world”. Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartinura explains in his commentary to the Mishnah: “Pleasant and beneficial for them, because they no longer sin; pleasant and beneficial for the world, because the earth is then left in peace” (Commentary to Sanhedrin 8:5). When the whole of Creation had become corrupt, G-d’s greatest beneficence to them, to future generations, and to the world itself was total obliteration.

I write these words as Israel, Jews all over the world, and – one hopes – all decent people are in shock and mourning over the murder of three-month-old Chaya Zisel Braun Hy”d on Wednesday night in Jerusalem. By the grace of G-d, the murderer later died of his gunshot wounds sustained while being arrested. (Even though his body is certain to be given to his family, for his people to give him a hero’s burial, at least he won’t be released in another few years in some cheap and humiliating political barter.)

When the blood of a three-month-old baby, murdered in Jerusalem solely for being Jewish, cries to the very Heavens, the statement that “the death of evil people is pleasant and beneficial for them, and pleasant and beneficial for the world” becomes veritably instinctive. Indeed, had the murderer met his own death earlier in his life, then he would not have committed this most evil and disgusting of sins, and the earth would have had at least a bit more peace.

Numerous times (Shabbat 133 b, Yerushalmi Peah 1:1, Soferim 3:14, among others), our Sages exhort us: “Just as He is compassionate and gracious, so too you be compassionate and gracious”. And as some of our greatest philosophers have explained, this means not only because He is compassionate and gracious, therefore we must also be compassionate and gracious; it also implies that we must be compassionate and gracious in the same way that He is compassionate and gracious, following His definitions of “compassionate and gracious” (see for example The Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed, Part 1, end of Chapter 54; Rabbi Yosef Albo’s Sefer ha-Ikkarim [The Book of Principles], second essay, Chapter 22;)

And so it becomes clear why the Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael (Masechet de-Shirata 3, s.v. zeh Eli) and the Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay (15:2) cite this same principle in the context of the Song at the Sea, the ecstatic song of praise to G-d that the Children of Israel spontaneously sang when the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. The mass destruction of evil enemies, who had enslaved us and attempted to exterminate us, was “pleasant and beneficial for them, and pleasant and beneficial for the world”.

As our Sages have also warned, “anyone who is merciful to the cruel will eventually become cruel to the merciful” (Tanhuma, Metzora 1; Yalkut Shimoni, 1 Samuel 121 et. al.).

The wisest man who ever lived, King Solomon, adjures: “Do not be overly righteous, neither be overly wise; why should you become desolate?” (Ecclesiastes 7:16), on which the Midrash expounds: “‘Do not be overly righteous’ – more than your Creator. This refers to King Saul, of whom it is written ‘Saul came to the city of Amalek’ ...and began to argue against his Creator. He said: G-d told me, ‘Go and smite Amalek’ (1 Samuel 15) – but if the men sinned, how did the women sin? And how did the children sin? And how did the cattle and the oxen and the donkeys sin? A Heavenly Voice came down and said: Do not be overly righteous’ – more than your Creator!” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:1 [16]).

Mercy for cruel and evil murderers is not an overabundance of mercy; rather, it is a distortion, a perversion of true mercy. It is indicative of the perversion of mercy that the murderer who struck in Jerusalem on Wednesday night was named Abdel Rahman y”sh, whose name means “the servant of the merciful one” (one of the 99 names of the god whom they worship). Not only the murder itself, but also the jubilation among his people at the murder of a three-month-old Jewish baby girl, show exactly how perverted the concept of mercy has become.

When all humanity became corrupt, G-d sent the Flood to destroy them. And that flood, which G-d defined as matar, as waters of blessing, was pleasant and beneficial for them, and pleasant and beneficial for the world.