The Gemara in Sanhedrin (71a) records the possibility that an ir ha’nidachas, an idolatrous city required to be destroyed, never existed in the past, and never will exist in the future. The whole purpose of such a Biblical law, the Gemara states, is in order so that we should be able to “learn it and receive reward.”
Let us then examine this topic of the idolatrous city a little bit. The posuk in this week’s parsha reads as follows:
וְלֹֽא־יִדְבַּ֧ק בְּיָדְךָ֛ מְא֖וּמָה מִן־הַחֵ֑רֶם לְמַעַן֩ יָשׁ֨וּב יְהוָ֜ה מֵחֲר֣וֹן אַפּ֗וֹ וְנָֽתַן־לְךָ֤ רַחֲמִים֙ וְרִֽחַמְךָ֣ וְהִרְבֶּ֔ךָ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ׃
Let nothing that has been doomed stick to your hand, in order that the LORD may turn from His blazing anger and show you compassion, and in His compassion increase you as He promised your fathers on oath
Essentially, after telling us all about how to (in theory) destroy an idolatrous city, the Torah then goes on to stress the concept of rachamim, mercy, in the verse quoted above. But what is the Torah trying to convey to us by emphasizing the trait of mercy in reference to an idolatrous city?
The most classic of approaches is given by the Ohr HaChaim. He suggests that destroying a whole city would surely have detrimental effects on the psyche of the people carrying out the destruction. Despite being prescribed by the Torah, all the bloodshed and death would create a sense of cruelty within a person. Therefore, God promises us that he will imbue in us an extra sense of mercy to counteract whatever natural feelings of brutality would arise in a person after destroying an entire city.
Our actions, no matter how righteous or justified, have a profound effect on us. Kind actions inspire kindness, and, God forbid, cruel actions arouse cruelty. We must take care to ensure that our actions are infusing us with the proper emotions. Indeed, Rambam writes (Avos 3:15) that it is better to give less charity to more people than more charity to fewer people for exactly this reason — the more numerous acts of giving charity increases one’s passion for philanthropy.
There is, however, another way to understand our posuk and it’s focus on the trait of mercy. The Da’as Zekeinim suggests that God is actually promising us that if we properly fulfill the obligation to destroy an idolatrous city, then He, in turn, will have mercy on us. Malbim explains that this works based on the general principle of “מידה כנגד מידה” — since we overcame out natural tendency towards mercy and instead destroyed a city in carrying out the Divine will, God will overcome his trait of strict judgment and instead act towards us with increased mercy.
This contains a powerful message: in the conflict between that which we feel is feel is moral and that which God tells us is moral, we must obviously act in accordance with the will of God. While killing is objectively a bad thing — something to which everyone would agree — there are certain times when it nevertheless must occur. The Torah instructs us to kill someone we see going to kill someone else, a rebellious child, certain nations that seek to destroy the Jewish people, and so on and so forth in many others cases as well. Our case of an idolatrous city, then, is fundamentally the same. In truth, peace is not always the answer. There is “a time for peace,” but there is “a time for war” as well (Ecclesiastes 3:8). While we never desire to take a life, sometimes it is nevertheless what must be done. God, in turn, recognizes the obvious difficulty inherent in this — overcoming our own emotions and inclinations to do that which we might feel is right in the face of the Divine will — and promises us that He will do the same. God states that He, too, will overcome his trait of strict judgment and act towards us with mercy, even when perhaps we do not exactly deserve it.
While it is often easier to conform to the ever-shifting morals of the society in which a person finds him or herself, it is crucial to remember that the true definition of morality and ethics is that which is put forth by God’s Torah, and that which, ultimately, one must strive to act in accordance with.