At the end of this week’s Torah portion of Balak, after Bilaam failed to curse the Jewish people, he instead blessed them. Bilaam then tried to destroy them by seducing them to sin. The Torah reports, “Israel became attached to baal-peor, and the wrath of Hashem flared up against Israel. Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Take all the leaders of the people. Hang them before Hashem against the sun and the flaring wrath of Hashem will withdraw from Israel.’ Moshe said to the judges of Israel, ‘Let each man kill his men who were attached to baal-peor'” (Bamidbar 25:3-5).
A lesson the Ralbag learns from this episode is that as soon as evil begins to sprout it is worthwhile to put in efforts to immediately remove it, without any laziness, so that nothing more will sprout. For this reason, Hashem commanded Moshe to gather together the judges of Israel to immediately kill all those attached to the idol of baal-peor, so that His wrath would rest from among the Jews. He also commanded to do this in broad daylight so that all of Israel will suffer and they will remove the bad from amongst them in totality. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We see from here that the Torah advocates for the annihilation of evil with speed and alacrity even if it means killing human beings and causing psychological trauma. It is acceptable in order to wipe out the evil among us. But killing is not required; any method that gets rid of the evil, while convincing others to not follow the bad ways is enough to ensure proper success.
But why should stopping the evil come to violence? Isn’t that extreme and sending the opposite message? Especially if it is necessary to be done in broad daylight in front of others. Can’t it cause too much trauma potentially? Isn’t it better to teach morals with proper civility? What about criminal justice reform?
It is true that Hashem is absolutely and only good, and He advocates for peace at all times. Indeed, one of His names is Shalom, peace. However, Hashem also stands for truth, His signature is אמת, and truth cannot bear within its proximity evil; something which is not good is the opposite of truth, it is a lie. For this reason, anything which is evil should be nipped in the bud and removed as quickly as possible, as soon as it starts, if it can’t be avoided altogether.
However, this logic can easily be misinterpreted and taken into the wrong hands, and evil can use it as an excuse; that they are killing and destroying for the sake of good; so how can this be accepted? For this reason, the Ralbag points out that the Torah emphasizes that Moshe appointed judges, people who are sages, that knew and understood the letter of the law They had higher standards and morals and knew when and how to wipe out evil in the most appropriate way. When having these checks and balances, evil can be removed from among Klal Yisrael and we will have the chance to serve Hashem in the ideal peaceful and honest way which Hashem desires.