Murder, ratsah, and the commandment you’re sure you haven’t broken

July 10, 2013

“You shall not murder.”

The Hebrew word that we translate as “murder” is ratsah. It refers only to criminal acts of killing often committed as revenge or a form of retributive justice. Using the term ratsah, the sixth commandment prohibits taking the law into one’s own hands and prevents that which threatens the sanctity and security of a community. Read more deeply, the sixth commandment speaks to more than just the one pulling the trigger.

As scholars continue to debate the essence of the commandment, one such Rabbi had his own interpretation, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:21-22).

Jesus is opening this commandment beyond its face value to uncover the role that you and I play in facing the violence that condemns us all. He is standing in the Jewish tradition that says that because life is a gift from God, each individual’s life is not only sacred but also connected to all other life. Jesus is turning all of the reasons we might have for one “deserving” death back on our own role and responsibility to that individual, to the community and to God for nurturing, preserving and encouraging life in all its forms.

But today is a different world. Sixty percent of all war deaths have occurred in the twentieth century. We have been startled in the twenty-first century by killing fields of the Twin Towers, high schools, elementary schools, movie theaters, marathons (and that is just in the United States). Social scientists and psychologists will tell us that we have become more desensitized to the killing out of gross familiarity and self-preservation. It is simply too familiar to startle us anymore and too much to handle if it did.

While this is understandable, does it numb us to the “image of God” in each perpetrator and victim? Does it absolve us of any responsibility in these killings? How does the sixth commandment speak to us?