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Hesitation

Friday, 26 October, 2018 - 9:40 am

The Talmud lays out a key distinction between monetary cases and criminal trials. In financial cases (where a guilty outcome will only lead to financial penalties), once the panel reaches a verdict, it is announced and enforced immediately – regardless of whether it is a conviction or acquittal. However, in criminal cases the verdict of a guilty finding is always pushed off until the next day. If the verdict is acquittal, however, it is announced immediately and the defendant is released straightaway.

I can understand why we are more cautious in criminal cases than financial ones – playing with lives is more severe than civil or pecuniary matters. But, why delay the results? The court has already spent all the necessary time deliberating. Isn’t this just a symbolic deferral? And, why is there a difference between a conviction and acquittal?

***

Three men showed up at Avraham’s tent. Actually, as told in this week’s parsha Vayeira, they were not ordinary men. They were angels, messengers from Above.

They each had a mission: One came to heal Avraham from his circumcision at 99 years old. Another came to inform Sarah and Avraham they would be the proud parents of a son. The third came to destroy the horrible and immoral metropolis of Sedom (Sodom).

After visiting with Avraham and Sarah, they departed for Sedom. The Torah tells that they arrived in Sedom in the evening.

What took so long for these angels to arrive in Sedom?

Now, if they were humans we could argue that they stopped along the way to rest, each lunch and take care of some other business. But, these were angels – on a Divine mission!

Why didn’t they immediately arrive in Sedom to fulfill their assignment?!

According to the Midrash, “they were angels of mercy, and they were waiting, perhaps Avraham would succeed in his defense for the people of Sedom.”

Think about it: Almighty G-d Himself had already decided that the case was closed. These people deserved punishment. Yet, the angels delayed, hoping against hope that somehow the decree would be averted.

Think about it some more: Angels don’t have free will. They are simply agents of G-d! This means that Hashem Himself tarried! If G-d already decided the verdict – and knows the outcome of Avraham’s subsequent petitions – why delay?!

*

Rather, Hashem is teaching us an important lesson. We never, ever want to acknowledge the evil in someone else, let alone implement punishment for it. The unfortunate reality is that it exists and we must dutifully follow the law and enforce the consequences. But, it’s never something we look forward to. We do it reluctantly, always seeking a defense and mitigating factors. Even, when a verdict is reached – we hesitate and push it off again. It’s simply something we don’t want to engage in immediately.

We are pained when we are forced to administer a guilty verdict. We hope against hope that a miraculous discovery will arrive overnight, altering the outcome. And even when that opportunity slips away, we are dismayed at the punishment we are forced to administer.

***

Every day we act as judges. We judge our neighbors, the person on the TV screen, our children and coworkers.

Sometimes we are required to enforce discipline. Perhaps to our children, employees or students.

Let’s remember the Jewish tradition – we always hesitate when it comes time to punish. It’s a great barometer to ensure that we are acting altruistically. Wait until the raw emotions have subsided. You’ll have a clearer head – and conscience.

After all, even G-d – Whose head and heart are always clear – waited.

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