Among the topics addressed in Parashat Ki-Teitzei is malkot – lashes administered to an offender by Beit Din as punishment for certain misdeeds. The Torah strictly forbids the officer administering the punishment from exceeding the prescribed amount of lashes, warning, “lest he be flogged further, in excess, and your brother will be degraded in your eyes” (25:3). Even a person determined to be deserving of corporal punishment must be respected, and may not be punished even slightly beyond that which the Torah prescribes.
The Mishna in Masekhet Makkot (3:15) notes the phrase in this verse, “ve-nikla achikha le-einekha” – “and your brother will be degraded in your eyes” – and finds it significant that the Torah refers to the offender as “your brother.” The implication of this term, the Mishna writes, is that “keivan she-laka harei hu ke-achikha” – “once he is beaten, he is hereby your brother.” Although this person has committed a transgression that rendered him worthy of corporal punishment, nevertheless, after the punishment has been administered, he is to be treated as our “brother.” The Rambam, in Hilkhot Sanhedrin (17:7), codifies the Gemara’s comment as halakha, explaining that once a sinner receives the prescribed number of lashes, he fully regains his status as an upstanding member of Am Yisrael, a status which has several practical halakhic ramifications.
More broadly, the principle of “keivan she-laka harei hu ke-achikha” establishes that we must not hold people lifelong hostages to their mistakes. We all make mistakes, and many of us make grave mistakes, oftentimes rightfully suffering the consequences of those mistakes. Chazal here teach us that we must afford people the opportunity for a new beginning. If they accept responsibility for their mistakes and commit themselves to improve, we must view them as “achikha,” as our “brother,” as full-fledged, respected members of Am Yisrael, recognizing their sincere commitment to avoid repeating their past failures.
There is also an additional message conveyed through the principle of “keivan she-laka harei hu ke-achikha.” Namely, when our fellow experiences “malkot” and suffers pain, we are to treat that person as our “brother,” regardless of his or her past history. Even if the pain was self-inflicted, the result of that person’s irresponsibility or indiscretion, the very fact that he or she is now in distress requires a perspective of “harei hu ke-achikha,” a disposition of sensitivity and compassion. We must not revel in the pain and humiliation suffered by wrongdoers as a result of their due punishment. Instead, we are to look upon them as we would our own family member suffering pain, notwithstanding our disapproval of the wrongs which brought this pain upon them.
In truth, all people endure various forms of “malkot” on numerous occasions throughout their lives. We all carry around a great deal of “baggage” of one sort or another, and we all deal with various forms of struggles, frustrations and disappointments. In a sense, then, the message of “keivan she-laka harei hu ke-achikha” is relevant to our relationship with each and every person we encounter. Everyone is, to one extent or another, in a state of “keivan she-laka,” enduring some degree of pain of hardship, and we must therefore treat people with kindness and sensitivity despite their mistakes, faults and failings.