If the Torah is so concerned with showing sensitivity to criminals, how much more so must we be compassionate towards our friends, neighbors and colleagues.
This week’s Torah portion (in the Diaspora) is Emor (Leviticus 21:2-24:23). Towards the end of the portion we read about “the blasphemer” who cursed God. We are told that no one, including Moses, knew what the proper punishment should be for one who curses God. As such, the blasphemer was locked up in jail until it could be determined what his punishment was to be.
On the surface there does not seem to be anything too extraordinary to report. We do see, however, that nobody knows everything – not even Moses knew what the law was in this specific case. So too, we learn that one should not be afraid to say “I don’t know”, just as Moses did on more than one occasion.
But here’s what’s special. Our sages teach us that the blasphemer was placed in a cell on his own. This is significant because there was another individual who had committed a severe crime, also awaiting word on exactly what his punishment would be. This was the Sabbath desecrator mentioned in Numbers 15:32.
Why were the two sinners not placed in the same cell? Why the separation?
It is explained that they were not placed together due to the doubts as to what their respective punishments would be. Although it was known – due to an explicit verse in the Torah – that the punishment for desecrating the Sabbath was death, it was not yet known what the punishment for blasphemy would be.
A person who committed a minor crime, or even a crime that was serious but not subject to the death penalty, would not want to be housed in the same cell as a person on death row. The social mechanics would be just too awkward. Furthermore, placing a person in the same cell as someone on death row would have him think the he, too, was facing death, when it was in fact unclear. This would cause great anguish, a form of mental torture. Therefore, until it was clear what the blasphemer’s punishment would be (it was indeed death), he was separated from the individual facing certain death.
Punishment Must Fit the Crime
There is a small but powerful, and ultimately beautiful, lesson here. Look at the concern that the Torah has even for a criminal! Even a criminal does not deserve undue anguish. And here we’re not dealing with just any criminal, but we’re talking about a blasphemer – a person who essentially declares war on God! Yet even that individual does not deserve above-and-beyond punishment, anguish or stress.
Every single person deserves sensitivity and justice. The punishment must fit the crime; it may not exceed it. If the Torah is so concerned with showing sensitivity and compassion towards criminals, how much more so must we be kind, considerate, and compassionate towards our friends, neighbors and colleagues.
For more insights by Rabbi Ari Enkin on this week’s Torah reading, click on the links below: