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Contagious Evil

The Torah has no shortage of “thou-shalt-not-do” commandments. But they are not created (or given) equally. There seems to be a differentiation given in the text, at least for a certain class of forbidden behavior.

There is a phrase that is found a few places that is seemingly randomly “stuck onto” some prohibitions. The phrase, as found in the King James is “So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee.” A more literal translation from the Hebrew might be: “And you shall destroy the evil in your midst.” The phrase is only found in a few places in the text! They are: Deut. 13:6, 17:17, 19:19, 21:21, 22:21, 22:22, 22:23, and 24:7. Those verses they refer to: a false prophet who makes you stray; a false witness; a false witness; a rebellious son; a non-virgin girl who marries while claiming virginity; adulterers (two subsequent verses, covering different circumstances); and a kidnapper/slaver. A very similar verse in 17:12 is for contempt of court or priest in a judicial case.

So here is the mystery: why these verses, why these specific commandments (and not others)? What makes them specially deserving of this tagline? Indeed, if the person is being killed anyway, then why does the text say the redundant, “you shall destroy the evil in your midst”?

Here is an explanation:

The word that is translated as “in your midst” (mikirbecha) only appears two places before the verses we bring:

You shall not bow down to their gods in worship or follow their practices, but shall tear them down and smash their pillars to bits. You shall serve your G-d, who will bless your bread and your water. And I will remove sickness in your midst. (Ex. 23:25)

And

You saw with your own eyes what G-d did in the matter of Baal-peor, that your G-d wiped out every person who followed Baal-peor in your midst. (Deut. 4:3)

This phrase is specifically referring to actions and beliefs that spread. Idol worship, like sickness, is contagious. Which means that these verses, and the sins they discuss, are not specifically with the person who sins. The problem is with the sin itself, because there are certain sins that can propagate in society, becoming seen as somehow broadly acceptable. These sins are like the proverbial bad apple: some evildoers can end up corrupting the entire barrel. A false prophet can lead an entire nation astray.

We can compare the ‘50s and ‘60s, or just look around us today to see that “Everyone else is doing it” is an excuse for mass idiocy and worse. Everyone is at least partially a product of their generation and their environment, so the behaviors and ideas that define a decade or a society have a huge effect on most people.

This is true for lying to the court or ignoring its rulings – that kind of corruption spreads. So does sexual infidelity, and rebelling against parents. This is also why kidnapping and enslaving someone is one of these specific sins, while murder is not. There can be consistent profit in kidnapping, and one slaver role model encourages copycats in a way that murder, for example, does not.

So destroying evil in our midst is about stamping out the kind of sin that can become an epidemic, infecting society and breaking down its fundamental structures: G-d, marriage, the family, the courts, and respect for human freedom. These are all fundamental building blocks, the institutions on which any civil society must rely in order to maintain its structural integrity.

The other two words in the sequence (“destroy the evil in your midst”) support this argument as well:

Destroy

The word given for “destroy” means to get rid of something entirely, as in this verse:

When a fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked, standing, or growing grain is totally destroyed, the one who started the fire must make restitution. (Ex. 22:5)

The verse refers to making something disappear, entirely, removing it from sight. That is precisely what the Torah wants us to do to adultery and the other specific sins.

Evil

As a standalone word (as opposed to “knowledge of good and evil”), the word is found in Genesis when G-d decides to flood the world:

And G-d saw how great was human wickedness on earth—how every intent of the thoughts of man’s heart are evil all the time. (Gen. 6:5)

And after the flood:

And G-d resolved: “Never again will I curse the earth because of humankind, though the desire of the heart of man are evil from youth” (Gen. 8:21)

The next one is from Sodom:

Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very evil sinners against G-d. (Gen. 13:13)

See the trend? In all of these cases, evil is not reformed or reformable. It is something that merits destruction based on the deliberate and conscious behavior of the practitioners.

Wrapping it all up: the Torah tells us that anything identified as evil deserves to be utterly destroyed. And we learn that some evils are specifically dangerous because news of their existence or survival radiate outward throughout society, contaminating all who hear of it. The Torah uses the phrase “you shall destroy the evil in your midst” is thus identifying those specific evils, the ones that qualify for harsh justice, and why we must vigilantly eliminate them.

[an @iwe, @blessedbalcksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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