Sixteen years after the atom bomb was dropped on Japan, the Twilight Zone episode “A Quality of Mercy” aired in the United States. The story was set at the end of World War II and involved an American soldier who found himself more or less literally walking in the shoes of a Japanese soldier. In both incarnations, the soldier showed mercy by arguing against inflicting needless casualties on the helpless troops of the other side. The teleplay author and host, Rod Serling, concluded by quoting Shakespeare on mercy, saying, “It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” He added that Shakespeare’s insight was “applicable to any moment in time, to any group of soldiery, to any nation on the face of the earth.”

As I watched the Twilight Zone re-run this week, I wondered how many years will follow the conclusion of the U.S. occupation of Iraq before we will watch made-for-TV movies that portray some individual terrorist militia members as showing occasional mercy towards American soldiers. I cannot imagine such a show airing today.

The more I pondered mercy, the more I noticed its virtually complete absence in this week’s Torah portion. In Deut. 2:23-30, the Israelites asked King Sihon of Heshbon for permission to pass through his land, promising not to take any of his country’s food or water without paying for it. But G-d hardened the king’s heart, as he had hardened Pharaoh’s in Egypt years before. The Israelites slaughtered King Sihon’s army and then “doomed every town—men, women, and children—leaving no survivor.” (Deut. 2:35) Even if it were deemed necessary to fight the king’s army, the subsequent systematic slaughter of children in the villages appears to be the same sort of battle tactic that was showcased in the Twilight Zone commentary as an appropriate instance for soldiers to show a little mercy.

When I try to imagine a G-d who commands this massacre as an ethical way to wage war, I cannot imagine this G-d being the same G-d who values education, humility, and minuchas ha-nefesh. Perhaps a reader could elucidate.