“If a man acts intentionally to cunningly murder his neighbour; from My Altar take him to die.”
~ Exodus 21:14
As far as actions with negative effects go, murder is about as bad you get. As such, it’s not outrageous that Judaism advocates the death penalty.
But what’s God’s Altar got to do with it?
People who’ve done damage in the world usually regret their mistakes and often turn to religion for atonement. While this may be helpful on a personal level when sincere, it doesn’t clean-up the mess they made.
So God says: ‘First take responsibility, then we’ll talk’.
“Provide from among the entire people, God-fearing men of means, men of truth who despise money; and appoint them judges.”
~ Exodus 18:21
In one sentence, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, defines the exact criteria needed for being a judge.
Why doesn’t he mention the obvious: total knowledge of the law?
Because there’re two levels of knowledge: information and application. While information can be learned, its application is dependent on good character. Although Moses could teach anyone the laws, only those of character could implement them.
Any old donkey can schlep books on its back, but only a mensch can take the wisdom to heart.
“And Hashem showed him a tree; and he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.”
~ Shemos 15:25
After leaving Egypt, the Jewish people wandered without water for three days. When they finally found some, it was too bitter to drink.
How did throwing in a tree help?
The Rabbis say this was a miracle within a miracle: not only did a tree sweeten water, but the tree itself was bitter.
Life has bitter periods. Trying to sweeten your problems will, at best, only cover them up. Better to accept that good solutions – like good medicines – are bitter.
“And I shall pass through Egypt on this night, and I shall strike every firstborn … I, Hashem.”
~ Numbers 12:12
Unlike the other plagues, where Hashem commanded Moses to bring on the disaster, here Hashem says he’ll do it himself.
Although a King may have many servants to do his bidding, some tasks can only be done personally. Not because other people are incapable, rather it’s just not fitting.
We live in times of comfort and automation where almost anything can be done by simply clicking a button. Some things, however, will always need your direct and personal touch.