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Two Minutes of Torah: Vaetchanan - Compassionate Punishment

In the movie Con Air - about a group of prisoners being transported on an airplane – at one point John Cusack’s character quotes Theodore Dostoevsky and says “You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners.” In this way he acknowledges the fact that while prisoners need to be punished, there’s also a need for there to be compassion in the way that they’re punished and the way that their punishment is handled.

This week’s Torah portion begins with Moses pleading with God about his punishments. Several weeks ago in our Torah, we read about how Moses struck the Rocks of Meribah, and as a result God decreed “You will not bring this congregation to the Land because you didn’t sanctify God in the eyes of the people of Israel. Here we see that Moses has yet to make his peace with the punishment that God has chosen and he says “Let me I pray cross over and see the Good Land on the other side of the Jordan – that good hill country and the Lebanon.” But as he continues: “Adonai was wrathful with me on your account and wouldn’t listen to me.” And God said “Enough, never speak to me on this matter again.” 

But then, in responding to Moses’s plea, we see how God has compassion for Moses. God says “Go up to the Summit of Pisgah and gaze about to the West and North, South and East. Look at it well. You shall not go across the Jordan.” 

At first glance, this appears to be God reinforcing the punishment – that Moses will not bring the congregation into the land, but when we return to Moses’s words, Moses asks “I pray – let me cross over AND see the good land.” Crossing over appears to be off the table because God’s punishment is very clear – that Moses will not bring the congregation into the Land. But the opportunity to see the Good Land on the other side of the Jordan – THAT God can accept. And in this way when God says to Moses “You can go up to Pisgah and see the land.” God is at least able to respond to one of Moses’s requests.

In this way, we see God’s compassion for Moses and God’s compassion in the context of punishing Moses.  For God’s reasons, whether we agree with them or not, Moses deserves to be punished and will not enter the Promised Land. But God still finds a way to respond to Moses’s request so that there can be compassion – so that there can be an opportunity for Moses to at least see the Promised Land on the other side of the Jordan. God demonstrates for us that even when punishing someone, there is the opportunity and the possibility to be compassionate in the way that that punishment is being handled. Moses never fulfills the first part of his request, but God listens to him, and at least he gets to see the Good Land, the Promised Land.

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