Earlier this week, I was engaged in a conversation with several chaplains who serve in the prison system. Unlike the full-time chaplains in the prisons, the majority of my clergy duties are not focused on the incarcerated. It is only every now and then, when the need arises, that I visit a particular Jewish inmate.
As such, I am not entirely familiar with the system and the inmates. The chaplains with whom I was meeting, on the other hand, have spent years (and even decades) working exclusively in the prisons. They are familiar with the system and its ins and outs.
At one stage in the conversation, one of the chaplains related that some of the inmates are completely evil. To demonstrate his point, he said: "I was dealing with a fellow who stabbed another with a toothbrush he had chiseled into a deadly weapon. Some of these people are evil, Rabbi. Pure evil," he concluded.
"This is why they have people like you," I responded. "The incarcerated here need you more than most people. Especially those whom you regard as 'pure evil.' People like you certainly have the inner strength to recover the dormant goodness and G-dliness that is buried deep within even such people."
This man of the cloth knows much more than I ever hope to know about the internal workings of that system. He goes to work there every day. Nonetheless, as one who represents religion as well, I felt that a religious worker in an institution of hardened criminals must surely know that his or her presence there is in order to dig deep and help reveal the goodness that should still be present within each person.
The chaplain disagreed. He said those people have no good. They belong to the "devil." I retorted that such people may not have any visible good qualities. Yet somewhere hidden, or maybe hovering over them, there must be something with which to work. If not a drop of good is within reach of that person, he consequently has no choices to make. How then can anyone hold him accountable?
The chaplain mumbled something about how my thoughts, unlike his, are based on the "Old" Testament. I chose not to further my conversation with him on this matter.
The world in which we live is comprised of people who have chosen to be good, as well as those who have chosen the opposite path. The rest of the people are in between, sometimes making choices that could benefit themselves and those around them, or, at other times, making choices in the opposite direction. While criminals who choose to harm others belong behind lock and key so they cannot cause any further harm, it is presumed that those imprisoned can eventually become rehabilitated and then benefit themselves and society. The stories of those who have done just that usually warm the heart. Rooting for the underdog is, after all, part of human compassion and mercy.
The Talmud relates that the descendants of some of the most evil murderers of the Jewish people – like Haman – became great Torah scholars, and brought great benefit to society. In such cases, the goodness was not present within those people. It was, rather, in their descendants. Criminals like Hitler, Stalin, and too many other modern dictators, tyrannical oppressors, and terrorists could not possibly be reasoned or worked with. Those people need to be dealt with in a unique and tough way. Very few, though, are like them.
Possessing compassion and using it to guide and rehabilitate people, helping them better the world around them is the ultimate kindness. This is not merely helping someone, but it can, potentially, help the world.
For such is the character of compassion. It introduces sanctification and goodness into the world, as understood from a series of seemingly unrelated verses in this week's Torah portion, "Emor." The Torah states: "When an ox, a sheep, or a goat is born, it should remain with its mother for seven days. Then, from the eighth day and onwards, it will be accepted as fire-offering to G-d. You shall not slaughter a (mother) ox or sheep and her child in one day. When you slaughter a thanksgiving offering to G-d, you should do so as accepted by (G-d and) you (by having in mind) that it will be eaten on the same day and not left over until morning. I am G-d. You should keep My commandments and observe them. I am G-d. You should not desecrate My holy name. I should be sanctified within the children of Israel. I am G-d who has sanctified you, Who is bringing you out of Egypt to be your G-d. I am G-d." (Vayikra (Leviticus) 22:27-33.)
The above verses seem to imply compassion; certainly not cruelty. The Torah therefore commands the Jewish people: 1) not to separate a mother animal from its child for the first week; 2) not to slaughter both parent and offspring on the same day; and 3) when one does prepare meat from it, it should be with the right thoughts and not be delayed, that is, eaten at once. Otherwise, why kill it so far in advance?
The Torah is teaching a person not to possess cruel tendencies. One must, instead, be driven by compassion and mercy. The following verses, then, teach how important this behavior is: 1) Itfits the criteria of keeping and observing the commandments. 2) Not desecrating the Almighty's holy name. 3) It brings sanctity to the people.
While many inmates found in prisons are there due to their own poor choices, the majority of them are remorseful and would do anything to right the wrong they have done. Many of them have redeeming qualities that, should they be properly rehabilitated, can benefit society.
Nevertheless, it takes human compassion to get past the evil action of the person to find the goodness and encourage the goodness to come out. In this way, the victims of those poor choices can be recompensed and come to a more beneficial closure.
There will always be hardened criminals who do not seem to possess any human heart. The compassion here should be focused upon the goodness that has been gobbled up by the choice to remain evil.
Compassion is a trait that the Almighty wishes to sanctify His holy name. As long as it is guided in the right way, it can make a major difference to this world and its people.
SUMMARY: Instilling compassion into human beings is one of the ways the Almighty wishes to sanctify His holy name and change the world for the good.
Rabbi Levi Goldstein
Sent from My iPad