Death Row and Emes


    by Rabbi Yair Hoffman

    Join our WhatsApp group

    Subscribe to our Daily Roundup Email

    Jamie R. Mill, 50, from Alabama is the next person on death row in the United States of America.  He is not a very nice person at all.  He was found guilty of robbery and the double murder of an elderly couple.  He is scheduled to die by lethal injection in two weeks – on May 30th of this year.

    Bryan Shawn Smith, 37, also from Alabama, was convicted on May 10, 2024, of multiple felony and misdemeanor offenses, including assaulting law enforcement during the Jan. 6, 2021, breach of the U.S. Capitol. Smith’s actions and the actions of others disrupted a joint session of the U.S. Congress convened to ascertain and count the electoral votes related to the 2020 presidential election.    The two aforementioned convicted criminals are not being held in the same jail cell. 

    “And they left him [the person who cursed Hashem]  under guard..”

    Rashi is bothered why the pasuk did not say that they placed him [the Megadef]  under guard.  The term “left him” indicates that there was something else going on here.  Rashi explains that the Bnei Yisroel left him alone and that they did not place him in the same cell as the one who gathered sticks on Shabbos – [Tzlafchad].  For both incidents happened at the same time.  The Bnei Yisroel knew that Tzlafchad’s punishment was the death penalty – they just didn’t know which death penalty.  While regarding the Megadef – the Bnei Yisroel didn’t know whether or not he was to receive the death penalty at all.  That is why they did not place them both in the same cell.

    Curiously, Rashi does not elaborate further.  He just notes that the difference in their cases.  A brief look at the Sifsei Chachomim, one of the super-commentaries on Rashi, reveals the underlying issue.  If the curser would have been placed in the same jail cell as others on death row, he would have undergone excess anxiety.  This would be an act of injustice.

    We see from this Rashi an additional and extraordinary aspect of the notion of truth. Truth is not limited to avoid lying and deceptive behavior.  Achieving truth is also the application of fair-minded-ness and in not meting out excessive punishment.  The Torah’s concept of punishments are intended to deter crime – (lema’an yishme’u v’yira’u) and to do justice to those who were not deterred.   Going beyond this is wrong.

    The nation of Klal Yisroel was commanded in meting out justice, but to cross the line of that justice and cause the criminal excess tza’ar, pain and anxiety is wrong and a violation of justice and the ideal of emulating Hashem’s midah of Emes.  The reason why Klal Yisroel kept the two prisoners in separate cells was a manifestation of Klal Yisroel’s highly hones sense of Emes. 

    This sensitivity is even more astonishing when we look at the words of the Da’as Zekainim miBaalei HaTosfos. 

    They ask the question as to why the Bnai Yisroel did not draw a Kal VaChomer, a fortiori argument, from the punishment meted out to one who curses his parents where it specifically states that he incurs the death penalty.  The Daas Zekainim explain that the Bnei Yisroel had entertained the possibility that this curser did something so bad that he may even be denied the atonement that the death penalty would provide.  In other words, his evil may be far beyond the evil of the gatherer of sticks on Shabbos.  And yet even still, we are enjoined not to give him unwarranted anxiety!  Thus is the level of truth that we must pursue.


    Quite often we do not see truth because our reality is warped by seeing the world through skewed vision or perspective.  If we change our “glasses” or lenses – then we can appreciate and see the real truth.  Rav Shlomo Kluger zatzal (1785-1869), the Rebbe of the Beis HaLevi (Rav Soloveitchik) was a strong advocate of eliminating negative perspectives that can obscure truths.  He once asked a question on the bracha of Shmoneh Esreh that we recently adjusted for the change in seasons.  The bracha of “Barech Aleinu es hashana hazos” where we ask Hashem to bless this year for good and for blessing is well understood throughout the year.  But what about when we say it during the last Mincha on Erev Rosh HaShana?  What could possibly happen then to the year?  Will our crops suddenly grow?  Will we win the lottery in that final 15 minutes?

    Rav Kluger zt”l answers that during this last Shmoneh Esreh of the year, we daven to Hashem for a change in our own personal perspective – for a change in our eye glasses and lenses!  We daven that we see the true bracha that we have received and experienced this year.  We must appreciate the true growth and blessing that we have been gifted from Hashem this entire past year.  Rav Kluger zatzal further notes that this perspective, the removal of the negative filthy lens that skews our vision be removed for the entire year’s shmoneh esreh as well.

    Rav Tzvi Myer shlita, the grandson of Rav Gedaliah Shorr zatzal notes that there is a common thought where people are categorized as either seeing the world from one of two perspectives:  “the cup is half empty” or “the cup is half full.”  Both perspectives, he notes,  are wrong!

    The cup is half filled with water and half filled with air.  But the cup is completely full!  It is what we need for these particular circumstances and exactly what Hashem, our loving father who always gives us what is best for us – wants for us.   That is the perspective we must always have! 

    If you liked this thought, why not subscribe to the Sfas Emes Newsletter?  Simply email the author at [email protected] with the word “subscribe.”

    If you would like to further the cause of promoting everyday emes by giving out this newsletter in your shul or sponsoring it for your home city please contact the author as well.  

    Listen to the VINnews podcast on:

    iTunes | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | Podbean | Amazon

    Follow VINnews for Breaking News Updates

    Connect with VINnews

    Join our WhatsApp group