Wednesday, May 9, 2012

To Shun or Reach Out?

What should be our attitude towards our fellow Jews who committed crimes? Here in Israel Chagai Amir, the brother of Yigal Amir, the man who assisinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was released from prison after serving 16 years for aiding his brother in his nefarious deed. Some in Israel protested his release. They pledged to continue to harass him. He remains unrepentent for his part as an accomplice in this most vile crime. He owns up to no wrongdoing. Amir does not seem to deserve much sympathy.

But what about others who have done wrong? What about those who confess and regret their crime? What should be our attitude towards them?
Once I lived in a small Jewish community in the States where a member of the community committed a crime, a moral lapse. Some in the community were outraged. They called for him to be shunned and branded an outcast, virtually expelled. If we were living in an earlier period they would have found 'cherem', excommunication, an appropriate response.

Is that the attitude the community is meant to have to its offenders? Many don't think so. They visit Jewish men and women in prisons, often incarcerated for the most severe crimes. They offer these offenders emotional and physical support. They want the Jewish convict to feel connected to the Jewish community even in his/her time of disgrace. While the person imprisoned is guilty of a crime s/he remains their brother and/or sister. They feel an obligation to them as to any other Jew in need.

Which attitude is correct? When a person has violated not only the laws of the state but also the laws of conscience, should we let the judicial system take care of them and leave them to suffer the consequences of their wrongdoing? Or do we continue to see them as members of our community, a membership that no crime (if they are repentent) should cause them to forfeit. And if they remain members we are mandated to reach out to them to ease their plight.

In the parsha of B'har we have a strong indicator of the way our tradition looks upon the sinner and the attitude towards him/her it expects from us.
The Torah tell us that if an Israelite, because of his dire circumstances, sells himself to a non-Jew as a slave it is incumbent upon the Jewish community and its members to pay for his redemption. The Talmud in Kidushin tells us that it's not accident that brought the Jew to such an awful predicament that he needed to sell himself to a Goy as a slave. The Talmud, based on the the sequence of verses, understands that the Jewish persons woeful predicament is a direct result of a sin and his refusal to learn his lesson. While I think it would be burdensome and beyond the scope of our present discussion to review the details of the Talmud's take on the story in its particulars, it suffices to say that, according to the Sages, the
Jew enslaved now to the non-Jew is receiving a punishment. He is paying the price for misdeeds. Yet the Talmud makes clear, even though his fate is decreed in response to his inappropriate behaviors, nonetheless we are obligated to make every effort and pay every expense to redeem him.

Yes, the Jewish slave is getting his just deserts. But that is between him and G-d. For our part, we are mandated to secure his release and re-entry into our community.
Shunned? Excommunicated? hardly! We are charged with the obligation to rescue!

This week I happened on a Gemara that taught something similar. The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest is mandated to pray for a person who killed another through negligence that he not be found guilty of accidental killing in court and sentenced to exile. If the killer gets sentenced to exile, the Kohen Gadol is, in some important ways, accountable for his failure to intervene successfully through prayer and avert the outcome.

The concept is puzzling. We are talking about a person who did indeed kill, albeit by accident. The court found him guilty of a negligence that he was very much guilty of.Why then should the High Priest be praying that he not get the sentence of exile? He deserves it! It's the Torah law. A person who kill accidentally needs to go into exile to a City of Refuge. Why is the Kohen Gadol liable for not praying with enough fervor for his acquital? Why should he pray for this killer at all? Why should he be acquitted?

Again here we are being taught a vital lesson. The court has it's job to do. It governs by law. Law is impartial and rational, without emotion. But our work is to love. We love as people, as family, as community. Ours is not to say "Let the law take care of the offender and so be it." Our task is to care and reach-out. Ours is to pray that the criminal do as little time as necessary, so long as s/he has learned his/her lesson. Our charge is to show compassion, to mitigate the harshness of the judgement the court may well need to ejudicate. Our calling is to care and to include the sinner and to make certain that s/he feels s/he still belongs!.

Solidarity with the wrong-doer in their time of pennance is a holy work. It demands the best in our character. It's difficult to get past the 'judge' in ourselves and embrace the one who did wrong as a peer. Yet that is our mandate. We are called upon to love the sinner who expresses remorse and to do all in our power to ease his/her circumstances.

Shun or reach out? To shun comes natural. That the biggest proof that it's not the work we are called to. To reach out requires an effort, sometimes huge. To reach out is to extend the borders of our care and to enhance our capacity to include. Reaching out is not so much about the other and their failings but about ourselves and our ability to experience fellowship even with those who have done the wrong. Reaching out is following in the ways of G-d, of whom it is said "Kee lo yedach meemenu needach", "Even the most rejected are never rejected by the Divine".

Shabbat Shalom

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