This week, our Torah portion outlines the laws that govern a Jewish court. Jewish trials are not tried by a jury. Jewish trials are always tried by a panel of judges. One of the fascinating laws of Jewish jurisprudence is that if every judge on the panel finds a defendant guilty, the defendant is acquitted.
This is odd. In most cases, guilty verdicts can be reached by a simple majority. In capital cases, a guilty verdict requires a majority of two. If a majority can convict a defendant, why can’t a unanimous verdict convict? Why is the defendant exonerated?
Purpose of Punishment
Before we answer this question, we must point out that in Jewish law, the purpose of punishment is atonement. We don’t punish people only for purposes of justice, deterrence, or to prevent recidivism. We punish to help convicted sinners atone for their sins. The pain, remorse, and public humiliation that they experience atone for their sins. Once they suffer on earth, their souls are liberated on high.
If the court’s role is to offer atonement, it is critical that the judges see the sinner in a positive light. A sinner that is completely wicked and has not a sliver of goodness can’t be atoned. The concept of atonement works like this: We contend that we are not inherently sinful. We are inherently good. We were merely overcome in a moment of passion, and we succumbed to temptation. When we repent or are brought low by suffering, our ego is swept aside, and our true self emerges.
It follows that atonement is only available to people that are inherently good. Without it, the rationale for atonement disappears. The good news is that every Jew has a sliver of G-d within—a soul. Thus, there is no Jew that is not inherently good. Hence, no Jew is beyond atonement. However, for atonement to be administered by a terrestrial court, this inner goodness must be visible to the judges.
Judges need to be able to see some measure of goodness, some element of holiness, some sliver of light in the sinner to administer atonement. They hold on to that sliver and believe with all their might that it represents the sinner’s true nature. When the sinners sinned, they betrayed their authentic selves and behaved for a moment like someone else. They were not true to themselves.
With this perspective, the judges can administer punishment for the sin, cleanse it out of the sinner’s system, and liberate the sinner to return to his or her authentic self.
If the judges can’t find a single redeeming feature in the defendant, they can’t view him or her as anything but a sinner. If, in their minds, sin is the defendant’s true state, the judges can’t bring the defendant out of that state.
If most judges find the defendant guilty, but others find him innocent, the sinner’s goodness is close to the surface. It is possible to see it if you look from a certain angle. The other judges might not see it because they view the matter from a different angle, but it is there. But if not a single judge on the panel finds a redeeming feature in the sinner, the goodness must be buried very deep. After all, these are trained judges who excel at uncovering hidden truths. If they can’t find it, it is not visible to the human eye. Thus, the judges can’t administer atonement for this person.
Hope is not completely lost. After all, G-d can see what a judge cannot. G-d will surely pick out the holiness and goodness of this Jew, no matter how deeply it is buried. G-d will then administer a punishment that will atone for the sin. However, the courts are unable to administer this punishment.
It turns out that the sinner is not exonerated by the unanimous verdict. On the contrary, the defendant is convicted to such a degree as to be beyond the reach of human justice.
Hope Springs Eternal
Despite the severity of this Jew’s guilt, hope springs eternal.
A Jew that emerges from trial knowing that his holy spark, his sacred soul, his G-dly innocence is so buried that even judges trained in the art of detection can’t find it is surely devastated. He realizes just how low he has fallen, and it shakes him up. It inspires him to turn over a new leaf and repent.
Nothing stands in the way of repentance because the Heavenly gates of tears are always open. This Jew is not condemned to live a life of sin until he passes and is punished in the afterlife. On the contrary, this experience galvanizes him to dig deep and elicit his own buried soul. When he repents, he accomplishes what the judges could not. He finds his inherent authentic goodness and brings it to the surface.
It turns out that by not finding his innocence and by declaring him guilty unanimously, the judges trigger an opposite response. Rather than condemn this Jew forever, they inspire him to turn over a new leaf. Rather than declaring him guilty for all eternity, they declare that he has a deeply buried reservoir of goodness that only he and G-d can uncover.
What appeared to be a negative is transformed into a positive. One that changes the entire trajectory of this person’s life.
The Month of Elul
This week we usher in the month of Elul, the final month of the year when Jews around the world take inventory of their sins and repent.
If a Jew whose goodness is buried so deeply that an entire court fails to find it can find redemption through repentance, how much more so can we? Let’s utilize the twenty-nine days of this month to take a complete inventory of our behavior and our demeanor. To examine our disposition toward ourselves, our family, and others.
If we find anything that requires correction, let’s correct it. If we can’t find it ourselves, we can ask those who know us best to offer us a few tips. Let’s use this month to reach out to G-d. In turn, G-d will use next month, the month that begins with Rosh Hashanah, to reach down to us in love and happiness. To grant us a year of goodness, prosperity, success, good health, and long life for ourselves, our family, and our entire nation.
Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.