We find towards the end of the Torah section of Emor: “And a man who strikes mortally any human life shall be put to death. And a man who strikes mortally an animal life shall make restitution… And if a man inflicts a wound upon his fellow, as he did, so shall be done to him. A break for a break, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth… There shall be one law for you” (Vayikra 24:17-22). Commenting on these verses, the Tannaim point out that “An eye for an eye …” denotes monetary compensation (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 83b, 84a).
In addition to various laws such as the above delineating transgressions and their resultant punishments, in Devarim 16:18-20, G-d enjoins us, “Judges and officers shall you make for yourself.” We must have judges to adjudicate all civil disagreements and criminal cases, and we need officers to properly enforce the judges’ decisions. Moreover, G-d reminds us, “They shall judge the people with just judgement. You shall not bend any judgement; you shall not give respect to anyone [in judgement]; and you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous.” Having judges or officers has no meaning whatsoever when, instead of ensuring a just society wherein all can expect just and fair treatment, these judges and officers abandon justice and twist the law for their own selfish benefit, without consideration for the greater good of society as a whole. “You shall seek only that which is totally just in order that you may live.”
Maimonides explains in his Moreh Nevukhim 3:27 that the general object of G-d’s laws is twofold: securing the well-being of the soul through correct beliefs, and securing the well-being of the body through proper social relations. And although the promotion of the body’s well-being is inferior in rank to the advancement of man’s essential and immortal being – the soul – the well-being of the soul cannot be attained without that of the body.
It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to do whatever we can to promote the adjudication and enforcement of true justice by honest, trustworthy and upstanding judges and officers of the law who make every effort to prevent theft, bloodshed or any inequity. Streets must be patrolled by officers to guard against theft and violence of any kind and the courts must be headed by honest judges who have the courage to make just decisions despite the temptations of influential people or monetary gain. We must petition and fight for the appointment of upright and capable people to serve as our law enforcement officers and justices and demand the dismissal of those officers or justices who do not promote justice in society.
Going hand in hand with the above is an insight by the 20th century Torah giant, R. Moshe Feinstein.
In the end of the Torah section Emor (Vayikra 24:10-16), we read of one who blasphemed the Holy Name. He was brought before Moses for adjudication. While waiting for his sentence, the blasphemer was placed under guard, during which time, G-d revealed that the punishment for blasphemy is stoning at the hands of the entire congregation.
To continue a smooth flow of the narrative, R. Moshe Feinstein points out in his Darash Moshe, one would expect the next sentence to be, “Moses spoke to the children of Israel and they brought the blasphemer outside the camp and they all stoned him. And the children of Israel did as Moses commanded” (Vayikra 24:23). However, this is not the case. Instead, the Torah digresses: “And a man – if he strikes mortally any human life, he shall be put to death. And a man who strikes mortally an animal life shall make restitution, a life for a life. And if a man inflicts a wound in his fellow, as he did, so shall be done to him: A break for a break, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; just as he will have inflicted a wound on a person, so shall be inflicted upon him. One who strikes an animal shall make restitution, and one who strikes a person shall be put to death. There shall be one law for you, it shall be for convert and native alike, for I, G-d, am your L-rd” (Vayikra 24:17-22).
In explanation, R. Feinstein notes that this section marks the first time in the history of our nation that capital punishment was being carried out – not an insignificant event. The Torah, before discussing the execution of the blasphemer, is stressing the importance of life. Whereas the people were about to kill another human being, we should keep in mind that killing another human being under other circumstances (when it is not being done by the court due to a capital offense) is an awful matter. Normally, one who kills another individual shall himself be put to death. Even more so, if a person even wounds his fellow man, he deserves to pay dearly. It is being stressed that, while it may be warranted in some cases, execution of capital punishment should not be done with reckless abandon, insensitive to the severe act being performed. It is to be done with full understanding that putting another to death is an act of most severe magnitude, but, when warranted, as per G-d our Master’s instructions, it is doing the right thing, and, with a heavy heart, we must do it. It is doing the right thing because we must, and understand it so, not because it does not matter. It is acting with intelligence, not as a dull-minded insensitive brute.
Once the Torah had fully enunciated the severity of taking another life, were the children of Israel capable of properly executing the death sentence. Then and only then, in full understanding of the magnitude of their action, could they properly perform it – the first execution in our nation’s history.
Only by preserving justice – with sensitivity – can we ensure peace and security in our society, and thereby form the proper environment for the advancement of our physical and spiritual selves.