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At the end of this week's parashah, the Torah tells us a story of a man in the desert who blasphemed Hashem's holy Name. Moshe had not yet been taught what punishment such a sinner deserved, and so he was arrested until the matter would be clarified. Finally, according to Divine instruction, he was executed by stoning.

Immediately thereafter, Hashem told Moshe a series of laws:

And to the Children of Israel you shall speak, saying - Any man who will blaspheme his God shall bear his sin. And one who pronounces blasphemously the Name of Hashem shall be put to death, the entire assembly shall surely stone him; proselyte and native alike, when he blasphemes the Name, he shall be put to death. 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 (Vayikra 24:15-21).

Reb Ya'akov Kaminetsky zt"l, once told us that for many years he had been bothered by the context of the above passage. The intention is clear: to teach the laws regarding the blasphemer. Why, then, did the Torah include in this paragraph the laws of one who harms or kills another person or his animal? What connection is there between these sins, and why are they mentioned here specifically?

Reb Ya'akov said that he had searched for the answer in many commentaries but had not found anyone who explained this enigma. Then one day, Hashem opened his eyes to understand the truth of the passage.

I once heard from the renowned Jewish historian, Rabbi Shlomo Rottenberg z"l, author of Toldos Am Olam, that if one wants to understand events in Jewish history properly, he must activate his imagination and envision himself at the scene which he is studying. If he does this, he said, he will realize things which he would not have, had he just read the dry text from afar. Apparently, Reb Ya'akov used the same approach to finally resolve what was bothering him.

He told us to imagine what had probably occurred during this incident. Most of the Jews at the time were devoted to Hashem Who had taken them out of bondage in Egypt, "with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm"; had drowned their enemies in the Sea before their very eyes; and was miraculously sustaining them in the desert, providing them with all of their needs. Suddenly, the son of the Egyptian taskmaster, whom Moshe had slain for oppressing a Jew even more than the norm in pre-Nazi Egypt, had the audacity to pronounce the ineffable Name of G-d and curse It. We can very easily imagine what the reaction must have been, especially of the zealots. People probably began beating him and even his animals with clubs. The police must have had their hands full freeing him from the unruly mob and taking him away to prison for trial and sentencing.

After the event, Hashem told Moshe to teach the Jews that, although their intentions may have been good; their actions were not.

First of all, no one is to take the law into his own hands. A man who has sinned, no matter how great the sin, is entitled to a fair trial. Honest judges will hear the testimony and thoroughly interrogate the witnesses, in an attempt to acquit the accused. Capital punishment, although allowed by the Torah, is extremely difficult to actually enforce, due to all of the complicated requirements of the Halachah. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that a judicial body which executed more than one person in seventy years was nicknamed "a killing court." If he is convicted, the victim is to be punished only by those who were appointed to do so; not by vigilantes.

Furthermore, a person is to be punished according to the strict constrictions of the Law. No one is to receive more than what he deserves. Moreover, unless the torah says otherwise, his property, and certainly his family, are not to be punished forthright as it says (Devarim 24:16), "Fathers shall not be put to death because of sons, and sons shall not be put to death because of fathers; a man should be put to death for his own sin."

Therefore, at this specific moment when the Jews were so upset about the desecration one of them had performed, the Torah commanded those who think that it is a mitzvah to persecute sinners and their belongings that if they harm anyone, even an animal, wrongfully, they will be responsible for their actions and will have to pay for them; in this world or in the World-to-Come.

A story is told that a shochet (ritual slaughterer) in Brisk was found to be not as G-d-fearing as a shochet should be. Consequently, it was questionable whether the animals and fowl which he slaughtered were permitted to be eaten. The Rabbi of Brisk (I believe it was Reb Chaim Soloveichik zt"l, although it may have been his son, Reb Velvel zt"l) summoned all of the town slaughterers to his home in order to discuss a way to dismiss the questionable shochet from his post and find some other means of livelihood for him. However, at the meeting, the Rabbi noticed that the shochet in question was also present; since he had no idea why the Rabbi had called them together. Consequently, the Rabbi quickly changed the topic and discussed some other matter instead.

When asked why he had done so, the Rabbi explained that the shochet deserved to be fired - but not to be embarrassed in public! He had intended to find a way to resolve the problem without causing him or his family unnecessary - and forbidden - distress. Since this had proven impossible, he left it for another time to deal with properly.

This basic rule is especially applicable for educators: teachers, principals and even parents. Even when students or children are worthy of punishment, one has to be extremely careful not to penalize them more than they deserve. This would be an injustice for which he himself would then be punished - "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" - for harming someone in an improper manner.

King Shlomo wrote about the Torah, "Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace" (Mishlei 3:17).

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel