Another Perspective

Going By the Book

What goes around does come around.

By 12.29.08

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My friend Sharon Stone got into trouble a while back when she reminded the Chinese after an earthquake that what goes around comes around. You can't expect to jail dissidents and harass Tibetans with impunity. It turned out that whole stoic, inscrutable Charlie Chan thing is out of style in the modern People's Republic, and Dior had to drop her as their spokesmodel for the region. They told her to go away and not come around. Bad for business, too, because people who are losing a lot of face need more cosmetics.

Of course, Sharon was absolutely right, and she paid a temporal price for speaking eternal truth. If anyone needed a demonstration of this principle closer to home, the case of O.J. Simpson provided ample illustration. Outside of a dozen California jurors, most of the country thought he belonged in jail and sure enough, eventually, he managed to work his own way behind bars. This column predicted that verdict was coming around long before O.J.'s go-round in court.

All these comings and goings are gratifying to a degree, but one thing is annoying. For a nice Jewish family like the Goldmans to describe Mister Simpson's fate as "karma" is sad. (Stone, by contrast, used the phrase in an Asian setting, where the Hindu and Buddhist familiarity renders it appropriate.) There is no reason anyone needs to go beyond the Biblical and Talmudic tradition to understand this denouement.


THE VERSE IN EXODUS (21:12,13) is fascinating. "If one strikes a man and he dies, he should be put to death. If he did not stalk him, but the Lord delivered it into his hand, I will assign for you a place where he may find refuge."

The sentence of exile (akin to prison) was reserved for someone who killed by criminal negligence, what we might call manslaughter. The question arises: why does the verse say that the Lord brought the situation about? The tradition teaches that this is explained by the verse in Samuel I (24:14) when David refuses to kill Saul despite having a clear shot. "As the primordial parable says, evil comes from evil men."

This is explained to mean as follows. One person had committed murder without witnesses and deserved the death penalty. Another person had committed manslaughter without witnesses and deserved to be exiled. Neither one could be apprehended. So God makes the latter fall off the ladder in the presence of witnesses and land on the former. The murderer is killed in the accident, receiving a death penalty. The witnesses get the impression that the faller mounted the ladder dangerously, so he is convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison.

Thus the Bible, the "primordial parable", when read carefully by a King David, reveals the principle that bad people can be used as a vehicle for bad things to happen, with the added irony that those seemingly bad things have a good purpose of their own.

In a Talmudic story that Alan Dershowitz is fond of quoting, the great scholar of the Second Temple period, Simon-ben-Shetah, witnesses a man brandishing a knife chasing another man into a building. Simon runs to help, but by the time he gets through the door he finds the one man holding a bloody knife with the other stabbed to death on the floor. Since Jewish law does not allow circumstantial evidence in capital cases, the man could not be prosecuted. Simon feels thwarted by the law until, some time later, he hears the news that the killer was himself killed by a snake.

As to the human behavior by law enforcement, the judge and the jury, this too has a Biblical basis. When King David is on his deathbed at the beginning of Kings, he summons his son and successor, Solomon. He tells him to see to it that Shimmi-ben-Gerah gets what he deserves. Shimmi had been abusive and threatening to David when he was dethroned in a revolution and running for his life (Samuel II 16:5-13). David passed up the opportunity to kill him then and again later (ibid 19:19-24) when he retook the throne. This was done to show that he could rise above personal vindictiveness to think of the needs of the nation. Still, Shimmi deserved punishment.

"Do as your wisdom dictates," David told Solomon. Just make sure he gets what is coming to him. Solomon put Shimmi on a short leash, forbidding travel outside Jerusalem. When Shimmi violated this order "to recover some property," he was finally put to death. It is fair and reasonable to give very little leeway to someone who got away with one. Even a much smaller crime the second time will evoke major penalties.

There was once a time, not very long ago, when most Americans knew those stories and understood their lessons. When fate accomplished justice, they knew what they had seen. But that seems to have gone around somewhere; hopefully it will come around again soon.

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About the Author

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator.