Parashat Naso

Punishment To Fit The Crime And The Confession

The different punishments for criminals who confess, and those who do not, shed light on the psychology of pleading guilty.

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What is the implied relationship between the confessor and God according to the texts from Talmud B'rachot 34b, Sefer Hachinuch, and Talmud Sanhedrin 43b?

D'var Torah

Under the United States' court system, a criminal who confesses is likely to face a lesser sentence than one who pleads not guilty. To some degree, that relative leniency for those who admit guilt is a result of the plea bargain, a common practice designed to relieve the glut in our criminal justice system. Also, the American public seems to view the person who confesses guilt as more deserving of mercy.

It is odd then that Rashi seems to propose just the opposite: A person convicted of robbery must pay back what has been stolen, but a person who confesses to the crime must payback what has been stolen plus an additional twenty per cent and must also bring an offering to the Temple. With this ruling, Rashi distinguishes between two types of confessors: On the one hand, some people would confess because they are cynically motivated by the desire to lessen the consequences to them; others, however, would choose to admit their guilt precisely because they are eager to pay their debt and truly find forgiveness.

The former group will find no solace in our text but is well served by our current criminal justice system, no doubt for sound practical reasons. The latter group, sincere penitents, is Rashi's concern. By making an extra payment to the person who has been harmed, the repentant sinner can truly set matters right with that person. Then, by making a sin offering to God, the truly apologetic wrongdoer will feel right with God once again.

Today, in place of the ram, we offer God the prayers of our lips and hearts, and we offer sacrifices in the form of giving tzedakah (charity). Thus does this text provide solace to those who wish to confess and repent.

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Rabbi Barry HD Block

Rabbi Barry H. D. Block has served Temple Beth-El in San Antonio since 1992, and became the congregation's Senior Rabbi in 2002.