In a quote: " The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Many of those people deserve to be in prison; however, some of them do not" - Rand Paul
This week's parsha opens with the counting of the Leviim and Kohanim, both of whom have specific roles in the service of God. Their numbers are calculated and their specific jobs are allocated. We are exposed to a strange ritual in which an accused unfaithful woman is forced to drink the "bitter waters" in order to determine if she has been indeed unfaithful. If the water affects her poorly - she shrivels up and becomes barren - then she is guilty of adultery. If the water passes through her normally then her innocence is proven, and her ability to procreate is maintained.
One particularly interesting verse is the following:
וְהִתְוַדּ֗וּ אֶֽת־חַטָּאתָם֮ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשׂוּ֒ וְהֵשִׁ֤יב אֶת־אֲשָׁמוֹ֙ בְּרֹאשׁ֔וֹ וַחֲמִישִׁת֖וֹ יֹסֵ֣ף עָלָ֑יו וְנָתַ֕ן לַאֲשֶׁ֖ר אָשַׁ֥ם לֽוֹ׃ דַּבֵּר֮ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ אִ֣ישׁ אֽוֹ־אִשָּׁ֗ה כִּ֤י יַעֲשׂוּ֙ מִכָּל־חַטֹּ֣את הָֽאָדָ֔ם לִמְעֹ֥ל מַ֖עַל בַּיהוָ֑ה וְאָֽשְׁמָ֖ה הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִֽוא׃
Speak to the Israelites: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the LORD, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount
Here we deal with a relatively simple legal case. A person who commits a misdemeanour and is psychologically ready to face their guilt is given the opportunity confess and pay some sort of fine. The nature of the sin is unspecified, so we are not entirely sure how serious an action can be, however at face value it seems that the Jewish legal system recognizes that mistakes are made and that a system must exist to find justice and rehabilitate this person.
In our everyday lives we are faced with all sorts of small sins that we are excused from with a fine. Misdemeanours such as traffic fines are easily excused. But as these transgressions get more complex our legals system is less forgiving. Crimes such as possession of drugs or accidental crimes like manslaughter are hard to reconcile. Can we treat other crimes with similar punishments if the person shows remorse?
In the USA there exists a law for drug traffickers called mandatory sentencing in which the possession of illicit substances automatically warrants a given period in prison. In a documentary called the "13th" in which mass incarceration in the USA is investigated, inmates are interviewed. Many are remorseful for crimes they committed in youthful ignorance and stupidity but are made to serve jail time. The rest of their lives are lived in the shadow of their detention.
If we are interested in helping criminals become rehabilitated and rejoining society (this may not be true for all crimes) then we must adopt a system similar to that in this week's parsha. A system in which the psychology of the criminal is weighted over their actions. If there is remorse then perhaps justice should be attained through different means other than incarceration.
Our relationship with this text remains complex. It remains a constant source of guidance and a moral outline into which we must colour in the blanks of our contemporary dilemmas. Let this week be no different.