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This past Wednesday, a 45-year-old Jewish man was put to death in Florida by lethal injection.

His name was Martin Grossman, his crime was murder.

The facts are tragic and painful. A 19-year-old young man from a troubled background, father dead, mother sick, himself on drugs and medications, was out on parole for a burglary offence.

While on parole he and a friend were apprehended by a wildlife officer on patrol, a young woman by the name of Margaret Parks. She found a handgun in their possession and confiscated it.

To avoid going back to prison for possession of a firearm, Martin committed a heinous crime: He ripped a gun from the officer's hand and shot her dead. A young, innocent life destroyed.

Grossman sat on Death Row for more than two decades, waiting for the sand in the timer to run out... This past Wednesday it did.

But the Martin Grossman whose life was taken, watched by a silent audience of Parks' family members, members of the press and a distraught rabbi, was not the same Martin Grossman who brutally murdered an innocent young woman all those years ago.

The young man who committed homicide on that terrible day was possessed by demons—demons with names like PCP, cocaine and crystal meth. Aged 19 and borderline retarded, Grossman was a poorly educated, highly medicated, drug dependent young delinquent. His father had been ill and needed constant care, eventually passing away when Martin was 14. His mother was ill, delusional and addicted to drugs herself—not exactly the building blocks for a stable household and childhood. This led to a downward spiral of bad behavior and its consequences, culminating in the shooting of a young woman whilst under the influence of a cocktail of drugs and medications.

What, if anything, can be learned from this tragic story?

In the past few weeks, close to 35,000 people who did not know Martin Grossman signed a petition for clemency. They pleaded with the Florida Governor to allow him to spend the rest of his days behind bars—but alive.

Why did they do this for someone they probably never heard of and definitely never knew?

The reason, I believe – apart from a healthy skepticism of the justice system – is an email released by the Aleph Institute, an international organization that provides assistance to Jewish prisoners and members of the military. Part of the email reads as follows:

Rabbi Menachem Katz with the Aleph Institute has been Martin's spiritual advisor for the past 15 years and testifies that Martin has truly turned his life around and struggles daily for repentance. "He is now a solid, humble human being, far from the disturbed youth who shot Margaret Parks over 25 years ago," says Rabbi Katz. Testimonies from fellow inmates and guards attest to the tremendous remorse Martin continues to express.

As Jews we have a strong belief in the power of teshuvah—the ability to return to our inner essence, a soul which is a part of G‑d, and to atone for even the most terrible sin. And so, whilst recognizing that justice must be served, and that a heinous crime had been committed, many appealed for the life of this once-troubled youth to be spared, allowing him to live the rest of his life behind bars, repenting for his past and following a path of return.

Of course there are many who naturally disagree, and the Florida Governor was one of them. But whether we can say for sure if he repented fully or not, his final words on this planet were telling. Before the lethal injections took place, Martin's words were, "I completely regret everything that I did on that night, both that which I remember and that which I do not."

He then asked to say a prayer, which the officer okayed.

His final words, recited with intense concentration and in a loud voice, in front of a room of people waiting to see him die, were Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad ("Hear O Israel, G‑d is our G‑d, G‑d is One")—followed by the words "Ahavat Yisrael" ("Love for your fellow Jew").

A sad and tragic story, but surely one for profound contemplation. Our Sages tell us "Yesh koneh olamo b'sha'ah achat"—There are some who [even after having lived a life of sin] attain eternal life in a brief moment of absolute teshuvah.

Maybe Martin Grossman was one such individual.

Both Jewish and non-Jewish community leaders are petitioning Florida Governor Charlie Crist for an emergency stay of execution for death-row prisoner Martin Grossman, scheduled to be executed on Feb. 16th.

National Council of Young Israel, Agudath Israel of America, Orthodox Union, Chabad, Satmar, and Rabbinical Alliance of America, are amongst a list of 200 organizations pleading with the Florida Governor to grant a 60-day stay which would enable for a comprehensive clemency application to be presented and considered.

The case of Martin Grossman is gaining national attention. In 1984, Grossman was a 19-year-old drug-addicted high-school dropout with a juvenile record for trespassing. He and a friend, Thayne Taylor, drove to an isolated nature reserve to fire a found handgun. A wildlife officer stopped them, searched their car and confiscated the gun. Martin, who is reported to have an IQ of 77, panicked and began pleading with the officer not to report him as he would be in violation of his probation. When she reached for her radio a struggle ensued, which resulted in the officer reaching for her own gun, whereupon Martin panicked, snatched her gun and shot her. A psychiatrist who evaluated him concluded, from his psychological and medical condition, that he could not have formed the intent to kill. Taylor served less than three years in prison while Martin was sentenced to death.

Mr. Grossman has been on death row for over 25 years.

The petition argues that the death sentence meted out to him is disproportionate in the extreme and that his defense was inadequate. Only one percent of murder sentences end in capital punishment, crimes commonly referred to as "the worst of the worst."

The petition further argues that Martin's crime, considering the lack of premeditation, his drug addiction, his IQ level, and several other compelling factors does not qualify for the death penalty, and that the court ignored mitigating circumstances. Only four of thirty-three available defense witnesses were used in the sentencing phase. Additionally, there are allegations of prosecutorial misconduct as well. A fellow prisoner and key witness for the government swears that he lied at trial, and that he was rewarded by having his own charges dropped. Martin Grossman's appeals regarding these issues have been rejected without hearings, but they could be considered in a clemency petition.

"Martin has shown deep and profound remorse over the years, and is no longer the same wild reckless person he was 26 years ago," argues Rabbi Menachem Katz from the Aleph Institute, who has visited Martin regularly over the past 15 years.

As of this release, Governor Crist has not agreed to grant a stay. Execution is set for February 16 at 6:00 PM.

Concerned citizens are encouraged to call (1-850-488-7146) or email the Governor and ask for clemency and mercy for Martin Grossman, and to sign the online petition.

Organizations or individuals who can assist in this emergency effort are asked to contact Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky at / 718-415-2221 or Rabbi Moshe Matz at / 305-532-2500.

Giving of the Torah in Silver Spring, MD

Here in the Washington D.C. suburbs, we're hopelessly snowbound, having just survived the blizzard of the century, which dumped 2½ feet of snow on us. And now that we're just beginning to recover our roads, we're about to be socked again with 5-10 more inches tonight.

It's not all bad though. The snow has kept us all home, giving us more family time and the kids more play time than usual. Neighbors helped each other dig out and picked up groceries for each other when going out. In many ways, by just giving us some free time we don't usually have, the snowstorm brought out the best in us. Perhaps the innate goodness of humanity can be more manifest in a blizzard?

The great Blizzard of 2010 occurred on the Shabbat when we read the Torah reading of Yitro, where we read about the Giving of the Torah, the event when the Jewish people received the 10 Commandments. The Midrash tells us that when G‑d gave the 10 Commandments to the Jewish people, He caused the whole world to become quiet. There were absolutely no sounds in the world, except the voice of G‑d Himself, as the Jewish people received the revelation of Torah.

Amazingly, last Shabbat was almost an exact replica of that event.

I live on a high traffic road in the heart of a Jewish neighborhood in Silver Spring. It's never quiet here. On this block, there are constant cars, busses, ambulances and trucks, along with their associated road noise. That goes on at all hours of the day and night.

But, in fact, on the Shabbat we read about receiving the 10 Commandments, the whole world (here in my neighborhood) was quiet.

In fact, the only people we saw outside our window that morning were other Jewish men and women, walking through high snow, to the synagogue one block away from our house. Why were they going to synagogue on this quiet, snowy Shabbat morning? To hear the 10 Commandments. Of course!

Life imitating Torah.

Upside Down Blizzard

Recently in our community, a 13-month-old baby suddenly fell terribly ill. One morning her mother noticed that "Rachel" wasn't walking well and took her to the doctor to get checked out. By the afternoon it was discovered Rachel had a brain tumor, she was hospitalized, and scheduled for emergency brain surgery.

Just like that, the "Stein" family had their world turned upside down.

On that very dark day, the Steins had to make serious, life-and-death medical decisions for their precious baby, watch her endure test after test, and feared terribly for her future.

I must say, our community immediately burst into action. Besides the meals prepared for the family and child care arrangements made for the Steins' other daughter, a web site and daily emails kept the community posted on Rachel's health status. Each email, school newsletter, and any other community newsletter reminded us all to pray for Rachel's recovery.

I remember praying for baby Rachel to have a complete and speedy recovery, but wondering if my prayers could actually accomplish anything. She was SO sick. And I am just one person.

Since at the time I was new to the neighborhood, I didn't even know the Steins. But, as a mother, I could imagine the pain and fear they were feeling. I often murmured a mother's prayer for the well being of the Steins' innocent, beloved baby.

Watching the snowy blizzard outside my window, I can imagine now the upside down blizzard that emanated from this neighborhood when baby Rachel was diagnosed.

I can visualize my prayers on behalf of baby Rachel much like individual snowflakes. Unique in design. Beautiful to behold. Pure white. Floating, in reverse of a snowflake, upward to G‑d.

But my daily murmurings, flurrying up the heavens on Rachel's behalf, were just a small part of the effort. There were the prayers of my neighbors, the families across the street, from the synagogue down the block, from families throughout the neighborhood, and from all the children in the schools who prayed for baby Rachel each day. But there were even more prayers: as all the synagogues and Jewish families all over Silver Spring and even more widespread in the Washington D.C. area prayed over and over for her recovery.

Each prayer was like mine, personal and heartfelt, so beautiful and unique like individual snowflakes.

But together our prayers became a blizzard. Thousands upon thousands of prayer snowflakes ascended to Heaven; beseeching G‑d for an immediate and complete recovery for baby Rachel, and to send comfort for the Steins.

In heaven, those snowflakes piled up. At first they were just a few inches deep, but then the prayers of the Silver Spring community became more intense. Inches became foot upon foot of prayers. Like the mountains of snow outside my home right now, in the heavens, those prayers piled up to become an immovable force. A wall of prayers too high to ignore. And G‑d heard our prayers.

The Steins had a roller coaster ride of surgeries and recoveries, coming home and then racing back to the hospital due to complications. But then one day, baby Rachel was declared well. She is home, she is recovering. The Steins can get back to the blessing of normal life.

And so, as with every storm, our blizzard of prayers has tapered off.

Join the Brainstorming Session!

It's that time of year again, when an estimated 130-140 million Americans will tune into at least part of the Big Game. An event of this enormity challenges us here at to provide some sort of Jewish spin.

So I called together a few people in the central office here in Brooklyn for an impromptu brainstorming session. (Considering that football is very much a team game, it's kinda appropriate that a blog post on the topic should be a team effort...) Here are the results:

The Forward Pass

Menachem Posner, a veteran member of our site's Ask the Rabbi team, recalled reading that the "forward pass," a staple of modern-day football, was not part of the original game of football. A little digging on the net on my part confirmed his memory: during the first decades of collegiate and professional football, only lateral passes were allowed. The ball could only be moved forward, past the line of scrimmage, by a player running with the ball. In 1906, the rules were changed, and the forward pass became legal. This change was implemented because many players were injured or even killed (!) while playing, due to the crush of players converging to tackle the rushers. The forward pass – originally ridiculed – opened up the game, and also allowed for spectacular 50-yard passes.

The Lesson: When trying to get the ball to the end zone, you can do it slowly and methodically, running with the ball as fast as your legs will take you—all while trying to stay clear of all the tackles seeking to throw you to the ground. Or... you can throw the ball way ahead. Life – like football – has to be a mix of both elements. Meticulous movement forward, and the occasional quantum forward pass. Even if you then get tackled, the yardage you've gained is yours to keep... (And then there's always next play.)

Game Time

The editor of our Audio and Video sections, Shmuel Lifshitz, in his youth a Bengals fan, took a few moments off his busy schedule to share this thought:

The average football game takes around three hours. That is the time that elapses from the opening kickoff till the clock runs down at the end of the fourth quarter. But how much of that is actual playing time? Around 11 minutes. Yup, zero in on the time spent between the time the ball is snapped and the moment the play is whistled dead, tally all the plays together, and you'll get around 11 minutes of action. Or around 6% of the total time.

What occupies the rest of the time? Commercials, player huddles, instant replays, commercials, timeouts, halftime, commercials, players milling around waiting for a play...

The Lesson: What's really important is not necessarily that which occupies most of our time. That half hour a day you spend studying Torah, the hour you spend with your family, the minutes you devote to prayer—that's the action. All else is just the hype that surrounds, pays for, and facilitates the action.

(Football fans: Aside for the 11 minutes of action, you too could be watching the banquet. Scroll up for the link. Even if your team is losing, this is a winning team everyone can cheer for.)

Defense or Offense?

My turn.

A while back I was at a friend's house and a football game was on. My friend kindly offered to explain the game to me. (Coming from Detroit, I have no incentive to be a football fan, and was never too versed in the game.) He explained to me that there is a "defensive line" whose members try to tackle the quarterback. And then there's the "offensive line," whose job it is to protect the quarterback against the defensive line, and prevent him from being sacked.

I was initially confused. The defensive line is on the offensive, and the offensive line is defending! I guess this is what's meant by "The best defense is offense" (and vice versa?).

The Lesson: Offense needs to incorporate defense (in which case the defense is really just camouflaged offense) and vice versa. Offense = doing good stuff; furthering our life agenda (but thankfully without risking concussions and torn hamstrings, strings that apparently only athletes possess). Defense = being on guard against unsavory influences and habits.

Put on your thinking caps and figure that one out...

Blizzards? Bah!

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a lesson I heard from my father, Rabbi Elimelech Silberberg, a few years ago following a notoriously freezing cold football game, well, well below zero, which was nevertheless attended by around 80,000 pumped-up fans.

(Side note: My father will certainly read this blog post, as he does all the posts I write—but will likely understand very little of it. He happens to be one of those whose 6% is more like 60%, leaving little time for sports. Though he does fondly remember the Brooklyn Dodgers games he attended as a child.)

The Lesson: Go to synagogue this Shabbat. No excuses accepted. If you want to go, you will.

How to Secure a $100 Million Contract

After this article was written I sent it off to Tzvi Freeman, a.k.a. Rabbi Infinity, for editorial review. Here was what he had to add to the discussion:

Super Bowl 2008, Giants vs. Patriots. Everyone figured there's no way the Giants have a chance. No one can figure out how they got there in the first place. Yet in the fourth quarter, quarterback Eli Manning threw two touchdown passes, including the winning drive that culminated with a 13-yard touchdown to Plaxico Burress.

You can see the footage where Eli Manning has the ball in the clear in that final play. You can imagine what's going through his mind. Heart rate tops 180+. The world shifts into slow motion. He figures, "I'm in the clear. I throw the ball, we get a touchdown and the Giants win. I'm the hero of season. I get the biggest contract offered in football history."

That's when players freeze or fumble. As soon as you think of yourself as your own person, you've lost. Everything has to be the team and the game. And Manning had been fumbling a lot that season.

The Patriots have six rushers after Manning. Manning lofts a pass to the end zone where Burress catches the ball to give the Giants a lead with 35 seconds left.

At the end of the game, a reporter asked Manning, "How did you do it? How did you avoid the rush?" He replied, "I made myself small."

Manning recently was offered the biggest contract in football history.

(For two more Super Bowl ideas, see What's so Super about the Super Bowl? and Super Bowl Beer Commercials.)

Do you have any lessons or thoughts you'd like to share?

What's the latest news? For that information, check your local or national news outlet. In this blog we will discuss the "why?"

Not "why did this event occur?" but "why did I find out about it?" There must be a reason. It must contain a lesson I can use to better myself and my surroundings. Together we will find the lessons...