February 4-5, 2000
Shevat 29, 5760
A convicted criminal is waiting to be executed.
He experiences a religious conversion, and is transformed into a new person.
He is now deeply remorseful over his evil deed, and committed to a life of positive action
and public service (as he explains in his long Rolling Stone interview). A public
outcry goes up: the Governor should show mercy by commuting the man's sentence.
It's a plausible scenario; in fact, it really happens from time to time. This week's
parsha contains a stark declaration of what the proper course of action should be in such
a case-so take heed, Governors.
"If a man shall act intentionally against his
fellow to kill him with guile-from My Altar shall you take him to die. (21, 14; Artscroll
Even if the murderer is a Kohen, and is in the Temple
ready to present on the Altar a holy offering unto G-d--that Altar which is the very
symbol of divine compassion for the Jewish people (and mankind)--, he is taken away
to be executed.
Now, don't misunderstand: my intent is not to endorse the way capital punishment is
carried out in the United States. Jewish law, of course, is a universe removed
from current practice in Texas. For conviction and execution in a homicide, the Torah
required the eyewitness testimony of two witnesses who verbally warned the perpetrator
before the crime was committed; the person doing the crime had to acknowledge that he was
aware of what he was doing, and of what the penalty would be. What's more, the
halacha stipulates extensive interrogation of those witnesses to uncover false testimony,
and other judicial measures to reduce the possibility of actually carrying out capital
punishment. Recall the famous statement of the Mishna: "A Sanhedrin (Jewish
court that tries capital cases) that executes [even] once in seven years is called,
'destructive.' Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says: 'Once in seventy years!'"
The point--and it's central to the Jewish view of man and civil society--is that true
Justice, with a capital J, must be carried out on earth with scrupulous faithfulness.and
no room is given to override that through the exercise of an opposing "mercy,"
That Justice, of course, is not "cruel" in the least because it is not a
concept fashioned from the efforts of limited human minds, however great; it is nothing
more nor less than the Divine Law of the Torah in its totality. As Rabbi
Samson Raphael Hirsch beautifully writes:
"The whole idea of the right to grant clemency or
mercy was entirely absent in the Jewish Code of Law. Justice and judgment is the
prerogative of G-d, not of man. When the very precisely defined Law of G-d.ordains
death for a criminal, the carrying out of this sentence is not an act of harshness to be
commuted for any consideration whatsoever; it is itself the most considerate
atonement-atonement for the community, atonement for the land, atonement for the criminal,
atonement in quite the same way as that brought by the altar." (Hirsch:
Commentary on the Torah-II, 306; my emphasis.)
A somewhat similar admonition is given to judges later
in the parsha:
"Do not glorify a destitute person in his grievance." (23, 3) While
"compassion" for a poor person might counsel a departure from "strict
justice," we are specifically commanded not to follow its dictates. Again:
not because we are cruel, but because we place our faith and the source of our discernment
in a higher source, the Torah.
The Torah is the only Book we can turn to if we want to find and implement Justice on
earth. As we have seen, not the Altar nor one's empty (or full) wallet can provide
any haven from the just and proper penalty (and atonement) which the
Insights Into Genesis
Insights Into Exodus
Edelstein is Director
of the the Savannah Kollel and the
Savannah Torah Education Project (STEP).
fax: 912-354-9923; e-mail: Yosef18@aol.com
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