Thursday, February 18, 2010

May God Have Mercy on His Soul

When I was a child, I recall watching the ‘courtroom drama’ shows on TV. Whenever a man was sentenced to the death penalty, I would hear the judge end his sentencing with the phrase, ‘May God have mercy on your soul’ - no matter how heinous the crime. I don’t know if judges do that in a real court. I have never attended a trial where a death penalty was issued. But it is nevertheless a worthy phrase.

A murderer is to be punished with the death penalty. That is what the Torah proscribes - even when a murderer regrets what he did and repents. Teshuva does however help in the world to come. So does his death. Death is his ultimate atonement.

Nefesh Tachas Nofesh (Shemos 21:23). A life for a life. If I understand the full implication of this Torah principle correctly - when a murderer has sincerely done Teshuva while still alive, his death then wipes the slate clean. Hence the plea for mercy on his soul is completely appropriate.

Martin Grossman was executed Tuesday night. Those who read this blog regularly know that I was conflicted about his execution. While I thought that his life should be spared and that he serve his sentence in prison for the rest of his life without the possibility of parole, I did so hesitatingly - siding with life when in doubt about where true justice may lie in this case. I spelled out my reasons and will not repeat them here.

My heart however was always with the victim’s family. The murder was heinous and brutal. Anyone who knows the details would have a hard time feeling any mercy toward a murderer like this. As I said in an earlier post the grisly details of the murder would motivate any normal human being to want ‘pull the switch’ themselves.

And yet, it is so much more complex than that. The debate on the rectitude of the death penalty in this case raged with a ferocious certainty on both sides. A certainty which I could not grasp. I saw it as an emotional debate. And emotions, no matter how strong do not meet the standards for justice. This is as grey a case as I can recall. I do not see either side as completely justified. Or perhaps I see them both as justified.

Nowhere is this conundrum better expressed than in two posts. One on YWN and the other on VIN. I should begin with the Agudah statement.

Agudah expressed their deep anguish over Grossman’s execution – pointing out the wide participation from all across the world including the Vatican asking for mercy. This is true and I suppose it shows that belief in a just cause crosses religious lines.

I must admit that I was particularly touched by the description of the execution by the Chabad Rabbi that attended it. Here is an excerpt from YWN:

The officer asked “Mr. Grossman do you have any final words?” to which Martin replied “Yes”.Martin began “ I completely regret everything that I did on that night, both that which I remember and that which I do not”. He then said, “ I would like to say a prayer,” the officer said okay.At that point Martin says “Shema Yisroel adon- elokenu adon- echod” in a loud voice and then said something that I will never forget so long as I live.

“Ahavat Yisroel”.

At that point I began to weep so loud that the guy behind me asked me if I would like to leave. There are no words to describe the way Martin died. Martin committed a terrible crime, one that will haunt a family as long as they live. But with those two words he showed that, “ein dovor bo bifnei harotzon,” nothing stands in the way of a man’s will. Martin died proclaiming his affection for Yisroel his brothers and sisters throughout the world, more for G-d and his Torah as well. Martin died a repentant man...

I wish I could say that this is the end of the story. Unfortunately it is not. Rabbi Yair Hoffman expresses well the sentiments of those of us who were opposed to - or like myself at least expressed hesitation in - asking for a commutation of his death sentence. Even though I personally decided to ask for mercy I completely agree with how poorly it was handled and that the net result was probably a Chilul HaShem. Here is an excerpt from his editorial on VIN:

(H)ow is it that the brightest and the best minds in our orthodox Jewish organizations attempted such a campaign when they (k)new there was zero chance of it coming to fruition? The political damage to Orthodox Judaism was enormous. The harassment to the victim’s family was so significant that they actually asked the Jews to stop calling them and harassing them. Indeed, the family of this woman were called “Nazis” in asking for the death penalty being invoked here. Is this also not an enormous Chillul Hashem? How dare any of us call them Nazis.

One phone caller to Governor Crist actually said, “By us.. the most important thing is a Jewish life.” What?? Is this person insane? Is this the message that we are giving- yes seek justice in every way, but when it comes to one of us – don’t mete out the punishment that the wheels of justice finally came up with – because this guy happens to be one of us.

And don’t the people who run these organizations and campaigns realize that there will also be people in our camp who are not the brightest candles in the box who will make Chilul Hashems constantly and consistently when we ask them to take to the phones, emails, and letter writing?

He is absolutely right. No matter how one feels about the execution, the ‘best and brightest’ among us – dropped the ball! May God have mercy on us all.