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Parshas Pinchus 5759

Outline Vol. 3, # 28

by Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein

The False Witnesses, continued

Recently, we mentioned Ramban's explanation regarding the witnesses who go unpunished: If the judges acted within their boundaries, as they understood at the time, they did not err. It is as if Hashem Himself, through the medium of the Torah, joined in their decision.

What is the meaning of these words?

In modern society, many who argue against the death penalty use the following argument: "One person has already died. What is accomplished by adding another death?" The Torah doesn't seem to use this argument, for Noach was told: "One who spills the blood of man, by man his blood will be spilled."

However, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfun said that they would have seen to it that the death penalty would never have been carried out. The laws of testimony are so stingent, that the Rabbis could have questioned witnesses until they became confused, and contradicted themselves.

We find many areas, where the Rabbis were reluctant to pursue prosecution. The objection naturally follows: "You too, are spilling blood!" In fact, Rabban Gamliel said this to the arguments of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfun, above. If punishment averts crime, doesn't the lack of punishment increase crime?

Judaism is predicated on the belief in Hashem's ultimate justice. In fact, we could never have survived without confidence in Hashem's ways. Our history is fraught with pogroms, crusades and holocausts. During the same time that China has grown into a country of approximately a billion people, Yisrael has retained a static amount. The mere survival of our people is miraculous, defying all odds. What kept the people alive during the centuries of abuse, indignity and subjugation, if not the faith that Hashem has hidden reasons for all His actions. The pursued will be vindicated some day.

With such reasoning, the Rabbis would refrain from punishment, feeling certain that Hashem alone will implement an appropriate resolution.

Ignorance, Warning

The Torah relates how Avimelech kidnapped the Matriarch Sarah, thinking she was unmarried. In a dream, Hashem informed Avimelech that he would die if he did not return Sarah, because she was a married woman. From these verses, the Talmud derives the law that a non-Jew does not have to be warned, in order to be culpable for a crime. Avimelech was guilty, even though he claimed that he was unaware of what he was doing. The reason? When it comes to basic morality, ignorance is not an excuse.

The Kli Chemdah asked an important question: How do we see from these verses that a non-Jew does not have to be warned? After all, Hashem came to Avimelech specifically to warn him!

Rather, we have to say that a dream does not have legal significance. Since the contents of a dream would not hold up in court, the "warning" which Avimelech received would have no legal significance. If so, why would Avimelech be deserving of the death penalty, since he had reason to assume she was unmarried? It must be, that he did not require prior warning -- in such circumstance where he could have sought adequate information.

Nonetheless, note that Hashem did, after all, give some kind of warning. Although, legally speaking, it would not have held up in court -- it was sufficient warning to enable Avimelech to save himself. >From the Kli Chemdah, it is clear that the dream came, not to seal Avimelech's guilt, but to give him reasonable grounds to suspect the significance of his own actions.

This is consistent with Ramban's opinion, that, although the non-Jew does not have to receive the warning, he nonetheless cannot be held culpable if he had no opportunity to know. For this reason, Hashem gave Avimelech sufficient grounds to suspect that he needed to be concerned about his actions.

Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein
11 Kiryas Radin
Spring Valley, NY 10977
Phone: (914) 362-5156

Good Shabbos!

Text Copyright © '98 Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein and Project Genesis, Inc.



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