Unexpected Death Penalty Advocates

BBC News: Hundreds of prisoners serving life sentences in Italy have called on President Giorgio Napolitano to bring back the death penalty.

Italy has been at the forefront of the fight against capital punishment and recently lobbied the UN Security Council to table a moratorium on it. But at home some of the country's longest serving prisoners want the death penalty re-introduced.

Musumeci said he was tired of dying a little bit every dayThe letter they sent to President Napolitano came from a convicted mobster, Carmelo Musumeci, a 52-year-old who has been in prison for seventeen years, and co-signed by 310 of his fellow lifers.

Musumeci said he was tired of dying a little bit every day. We want to die just once, he said, and "we are asking for our life sentence to be changed to a death sentence".

It was a candid letter written by a man who, from within his cell, has tried hard to change his life. He has passed his high school exams and now has a degree in law. But his sentence, he says, has transformed the light into shadows.

The Torah's Perspective

Mr. Musumeci has a point. The argument he employs is the reason why incarceration is not part of the Torah's penal code. Depending on the nature of the crime, a person received a fine (compensative and/or punitive damages) or corporeal punishment. In extreme cases, capital punishment was called for. As is the case with all Torah-sanctioned punishments, the person's death wasn't intended to exact vengeance, and wasn't even intended (solely) as a deterrent measure. Rather, the person's death brought atonement for the sin he/she committed, and — in conjunction with teshuvah (repentance) — guaranteed the deceased's soul's entry into Paradise.

The courts were not empowered, however, to rob a person of the ability to be a full-fledged productive member of society. A person who does not deserve to die must be allowed to be productive in the fullest sense, a prospect which is impossible when confined in prison.1

A person who does not deserve to die must be allowed to be productive in the fullest senseIn my estimation, it can conceivably be argued that long term incarceration violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Is robbing an individual of the most basic human desire/need, freedom, less cruel than inflicting physical pain? I believe that any prison inmate will answer that question in a nanosecond.

While this is an issue which societies and legislatures must consider, let us for a moment consider the prison inmate's perspective. From Mr. Musumeci's point of view, whether the court's decision was prudent or not is seemingly moot. Rightly or wrongly, the fact is that he is serving a life sentence. What should his attitude be now? Is he right for seeking a death sentence?

A National Life Sentence

To a smaller degree we can all relate to this predicament.

"You make your bed and you must lie in it."

We are humans, and we make mistakes. And we all pay for these mistakes, sometimes quite dearly. One person partied away his college years and now doesn't have a degree. Another person made irresponsible financial decisions and now she is saddled with a poor credit rating. What attitude does G‑d expect us to have towards our crumpled beds? Are we simply to resign ourselves to our fate, justifying the misery because we "earned it"? How depressing.

The Ninth of Av marks the anniversary of many tragic events. The first of these events occurred some 3300 years ago when the Jews were in the desert, headed for the Holy Land. The scouts they dispatched to Canaan to reconnoiter the land returned with an ominous report. They asserted that the Land was unconquerable due to its fortifications and immensely powerful inhabitants. Instead of demonstrating faith in G‑d, the Israelites panicked: "Why does G‑d bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be as spoils. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt? Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!"

The entire generation was handed a life sentenceAnd G‑d agreed. "As you have spoken in My ears, so will I do to you," was His response. The Israelites who were too fearful to enter the Land would never merit to cross the Jordan River and inherit the Land of Milk and Honey. They would meander about the Sinai Peninsula for forty years, and only after their generation had perished, would their children enter the Land.

The entire generation was handed a life sentence. This was the bed they made for themselves; now they had to lie in it. For good.

But the subsequent action of one courageous individual provides us with the answer we are seeking. One man sacrificed all to teach his brethren the appropriate response to a life sentence.

The Death which Infused Life

This individual, known as the mekoshesh, the gatherer, was executed for gathering wood in the public domain on Shabbat. The Talmud explains that — strange as this may sound — the mekoshesh desecrated the Shabbat "for the sake of Heaven." After the generation was condemned to spend the rest of their days in the desert, many Israelites mistakenly assumed that being banned from entering the Holy Land meant that they were no longer G‑d's holy nation, and their mitzvot or transgressions were of no consequence anymore. To dispel this erroneous assumption, the mekoshesh deliberately committed a capital crime to demonstrate through his death that their actions were still significant.

But why did he desecrate the Shabbat? Couldn't he have made the same point by transgressing another sin? Shabbat is a fundamental mitzvah which is an eternal sign between G‑d and the Children of Israel. Indeed, if he had chosen a "lighter" sin to transgress, the lesson the Israelites would have derived would have been all the more powerful — it would have demonstrated that even a minor infraction is consequential!

Perhaps the mekoshesh's choice to desecrate Shabbat was in itself a lesson he was trying to convey.

In their estimation, mitzvot which will not impact the world has no value whatsoeverThe Israelites' mistaken impression that their actions were no longer of significance wasn't only a result of G‑d's obvious displeasure with their behavior and His decision to punish them. It was the choice of punishment. The Israelites were well aware that "conquering Canaan" represented the very purpose of creation. As lofty as it may seem, sitting in a desert and studying Torah all day while ensconced by miraculous heavenly clouds is not the reason why G‑d dispatched pure souls into this physical world. Instead, G‑d wanted us to enter Canaan and work the land. He wants us to go to work, become involved with a world which challenges the soul's resolve and commitment to G‑d, and through the observance of the mitzvot to imbue this physical world and everything within it with holiness and divine purpose.

When the Israelites realized that they would be denied this opportunity, they completely lost heart. There was no longer any reason to carry on. In their estimation, Torah and mitzvot which remain in the desert and will not impact the world has no value whatsoever.

But the mekoshesh strongly disagreed with this assessment. Once a week, he argued, we observe the Shabbat—a day when no work is allowed, a day which is dedicated to spirituality, Torah study and prayer. On this day, even our "mundane" pursuits are holy—eating and taking pleasure on the Shabbat is a mitzvah! From this day we take the strength and ammunition to successfully prevail against a hostile environment during the following six days. Without the benefit of the Shabbat, we would be handily defeated.

And though the Shabbat is "merely" a preparation for the following week, it is a mitzvah of utmost importance. It is considered the equivalent of all the other mitzvot combined, and desecrating its holiness is a capital offense.

With his death, the mekoshesh was telling his fellow Jews: "You are the cosmic Shabbat of the collective Jewish nation. Your complete immersion in Torah study and spirituality in the following years will set the foundation for the following generations, giving them the capability to conquer the forces of Canaan! Your part in the master plan of creation is pivotal and indispensable."

Making Peace with the Crumpled Bed

On a deeper level, the mekoshesh was also conveying a theological truth. Even when a person finds himself in undesirable circumstances as a result of his own foolish actions, ultimately he is there because G‑d wanted him to be there; because currently this is exactly where he must be in order to accomplish his unique mission in life.

The shadows of your life can bring much-welcome light and radiance to the lives of so many othersYou made your bed. Many times with a little cleaning, ironing, stretching and pulling, the bed can be freshened and made eminently inviting. And at those times when this is not possible, bear in mind that this crumpled bed is exactly where you have the potential to be most productive, exactly where G‑d wants you to be.

Mr. Musumeci, I commend you for your constructive utilization of your time behind bars. You live in a progressive society where prison inmates are presented the opportunity to be productive in many ways. You have the ability to use your knowledge of law to assist many individuals who are in dire need of the services you can now render. The shadows of your life can bring much-welcome light and radiance to the lives of so many others. And you, too, will have the ability to bask in the light they will reflect back into your cell.

Hopefully you will serve as an inspiration to all those who share your fate: those who are imprisoned by the courts as well as the many of us who are lying in crumpled beds of our own making.