We're reading parshiyos (Torah Bible portions) these weeks about brotherly strife, attempted murder, and worse. We're taught by oral law though that there's a lot more to it, and that the motivations were actually those of Heavenly good (l'shaim shamayim) and that Yaakov (Jacob) and all 12 of his sons were tzaddikim (holy men capable only of good deeds), acting for their understanding of the greater good.
The problem is that we ourselves are not tzaddikim, and we can't reach that level of Yaakov and his sons in our day. Yet many people act, even to the point of murder, convinced that they are acting for the good, for their understanding of what's right. Moreover, every single day, many of us ourselves, even if we can't conceive of committing murder, do harm others. We do it feeling self-righteous, convinced of our own worthiness, of our own understanding of the way the world is supposed to be. We act as if individual actions are not connected and don't take into account a deeper understanding of the reactions and the side effects of what we do and say.
I've been listening to lectures recently on historical life from pre-historic times to the present, life of the everyday man and woman. Cultural relativism comes greatly into play. Herodotus famously asked a group of Greeks how much he would have to pay them to eat their dead relatives rather than burning the bodies; horrified they told him in disgust nothing could force them to do such a dreadful thing. Then he asked a group of men from India what it would take to convince them to burn the dead bodies of their own relatives rather than consuming them as was their custom; not surprisingly they were just as horrified at such a suggestion as the Greeks had been. Yet Herodotus himself saw everything from the point of view of a Greek, noting that Egyptians customarily did everything backward; backward, that is, from a Greek perspective.
We have an absolute perspective, the perspective of the written and oral Torah. Yet still every moment of our lives, we have to consider our whole actions. When we judge others, deliver our own verdicts, decide what is right to do, we have to refer back to the whole Torah. Not what is convenient, not what we've bothered to learn, not that which is comfortable, but every bit.
"What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor." There is so much more to that than we can imagine. Do not steal, do not murder; it can be surprisingly hard to be sure we're fully considering every harm that could come from action or inaction.
If this were not Shabbos Chanuka, the haftarah reading we would have would include the famous story of Shlomo haMelech (King Solomon) judging between the women claiming to be the mother of the surviving infant among two infants. His suggestion that the living baby be cut in half strikes us today as almost facetious; what kind of mother could accept such a thing? Yet at the time it occurred, modern archeology and anthropology now tell us, ritual child murder and even cannibalism were still known in parts of what is now Greece, the "modern," "advanced" world of the day.
I can't imagine any of my friends would ever feel they truly had a reason and a validation to take up arms and murder one or more others. I fear, though, how often it seems in our modern, supposedly enlightened and just world, that people do feel justified and right in doing just this. I can only hope that in every action I myself take in the near future, I consider fully whether my actions and words are justified, appropriate, truly Torah-sanctioned, and right.