Rav Dessler explains that the proper objective of justice is not to punish criminals or sinners for their misdeeds. Rather, the goal must be to correct the crime or transgression so that they are not repeated in the future. In the case of the second criminal, who was raised in a home that valued proper conduct and respect for the law, this objective can best be achieved through a more lenient approach. This particular young man understands deep down what is right and has conducted himself accordingly in the past. With some additional guidance and a return to a strong, healthy environment, he can be redirected along the proper path. Under these circumstances, even din, strict justice, would agree that leniency offers the best means of turning this young man around. Time in the penitentiary would only exacerbate the problem.
The first criminal, on the other hand, does not possess a clear sense of proper social conduct. From his perspective, crime is a way of life, a means of survival. To allow him immediately back on the street would almost guarantee future repetition of criminal activity, which could result in even more dire results, for him and for those around him. Here, rachamim, unbounded mercy, would advocate for a stricter punishment – to inflict suffering today with the hope of producing a better tomorrow.
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When we ask Hashem to factor in his love for our forefathers as part of our judgment, we are not looking to simply take advantage of positive past relationships. Rather, we are asking Him to see the latent potential within us as children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and judge us in that light. In that respect, we are like the robber who comes from a good home environment but has become entangled with negative influences. Other nations, however, lack that same pedigree and cannot tap into the same reservoirs of nobility and service.
Let us develop this idea further. In Ruach Chaim, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin notes the slight change in terminology between Avos 5:4, which refers to Avraham by the term “avinu” (our father), in contrast to the preceding mishnah, where the title is omitted. He states that the reason for the distinction is due to the fact that the previous mishnah focuses on pure genealogy, namely the ten generations from Noach to Avraham. In that respect Avraham was not decidedly more of a paternal figure for our nation than was Noach, from whom all of humanity originates.
What distinguishes Avraham as our collective father, says Rav Chaim, is the fact that he successfully completed a series of tests – the focus of the subsequent mishnah – that strengthened and internalized his deep sense of belief. That belief he bequeathed to future generations, as if through our genetic code, becoming our progenitor on a much deeper level.
Numerous illustrations bear out this point. Take, for example, the issue of self-sacrifice. Why is it, asks R’ Chaim, that so many Jews, even the irreligious, have been willing to sacrifice their own lives for the sanctification of heaven? Consider how many completely disconnected Jews chose to identify with their Jewish ancestry during the Holocaust, at their own peril. Why would they do so when the week before they wanted nothing to do with their Jewishness and aggressively pursued a secular identity? The answer: Because of Avraham’s readiness to choose death in a fiery furnace rather than acquiescing to the sacrilegious demands of King Nimrod.
We see this again in relation to our historic connection to the Holy Land. What is the basis of a Jew’s ever-present longing for his national homeland, even after nearly two millennia of life in exile? How are we to understand why so many secular Jews engaged in self-sacrifice to settle Palestine when the gates of America were still wide open? We can attribute this to Avraham, who hearkened to Hashem’s voice and left his extended family and homeland for a faraway, unknown destination (Canaan).
Yet another application of this idea is the Jewish penchant for physical and spiritual endurance. What has allowed Jews to develop tolerance for even the intolerable, believing that all would eventually work out for the best? Avraham, despite the crippling famine that greeted him upon his arrival in Canaan, never once questioned the divine plan. These and other spiritual qualities were transmitted directly to the Jewish people due to the self-sacrifice and fundamental faith of Avraham Avinu. And of course there are many additional qualities that have been transmitted through the spiritual attainments and deep commitment of our other forefathers and mothers.