When the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court would try a person for a capital crime, a conviction would be obtained if the majority of the 23 judges would vote for conviction. Actually, it must be a majority of two.
From this week’s Torah portion of Masei, the Talmud derives a very intriguing and enigmatic law. If the vote for conviction was unanimous, the accused is ruled innocent! The Talmud (Sanhedrin 17a) explains this rather unusual ruling in the following manner.
The Torah, in this week’s Parsha, requires the judges to “judge and save.” In other words their role is to serve both as the prosecution and the defense. For this reason, a final decision in a capital case is always delayed to the next day so that they might still find some “virtue” or exculpatory evidence. These judges (who have voted unanimously for conviction), however, are so set in their way, that they will no longer be capable of defending the accused.
The simple logic behind this explanation is that a judge must maintain a certain degree of impartiality. If a judge, for example, witnessed the crime personally, he would be ineligible to rule on that matter in a capital case. How can he be an objective judge? Once he had seen the crime, there is no room in his mind for acquittal.
Similarly, once all the judges have decided against the accused it is an indication that they are of one mind and cannot see another side of this individual or the case.
Chassidic thought explains this law on a deeper level, by reflecting on the very basis of the law that requires that the judges seek to find some virtue in the accused. Even when someone is convicted and will be punished by the court, the object of the punishment is not for the sake of vengeance. G-d forbid. G-d’s only reason for assigning punishment to a person is for his own good. By enduring the punishment, the criminal is cleansed from his impurity and evil.
By finding merit and virtue in the criminal, the court reveals that the criminal is not all evil and can be cleansed. The existence of some measurable good is a positive sign that the punishment will succeed in overtaking the evil and expunging it.
In truth, every Jew possesses some measure of good. There are differences, as to the degree to which this good is covered up and concealed. When the judges find merit in the criminal, this is a sign that they have found his inner good and is therefore “capable” of receiving punishment that will prove beneficial.
If the criminal is so evil, that the most sensitive and perceptive sages of the Sanhedrin could not detect even a trace of good — despite the fact that everybody possesses this spark of goodness, that means that the judges cannot possibly do their job adequately, because the criminal will not be helped and cleansed by the punishment. Then, Torah does not allow meting out punishment by the courts, because the punishment will not lead to the person’s complete atonement.
The lesson one can derive from this law and its explanation is mind-boggling. If a vicious criminal cannot be punished because the Sanhedrin failed to find his redeeming qualities, then certainly we all possess incredible virtue.
If we ever had any questions as to how we will be redeemed, considering the fact that we are far from perfection, the answer is that, on the contrary, we are all virtuous. If there is an appearance of evil, it is only on the surface and caused most likely by the harsh conditions of galut, exile.
Another important lesson. Just as the criminal’s inner good was brought to the surface, when the Sanhedrin searched for and exposed his virtue, similarly, when we speak well of our fellow, we will enable that individual to fully express his/her inner goodness. It is this extra measure of goodness, when exposed, that will bring about the imminent coming of Moshiach. Moshiach‘s task is to complete this process of bringing out the potential goodness and holiness of every person, that will ultimately lead to universal peace and harmony.