Yesterday, we noted the prohibition issued by the Torah in Parashat Ki-Teitzei (25:3) forbidding court officials from exceeding the prescribed amount of lashes when punishing violators. The Torah warns lest “ve-nikla achikha le-einekha” – one might look disdainfully upon the offender and decide to lash him more than Halakha prescribes. Even when a person has committed a Torah violation that warrants court-administered punishment, we must still treat him as “achikha” – our kin, and refrain from excessive punitive measures.
The Gemara, in Masekhet Makkot (23a), adds a further layer of interpretation to this verse, explaining, “Keivan she-laka – harei hu ke-achikha” – “Once he was lashed, he is then your brother.” This reading of the verse forms the basis of the halakha requiring treating a violator as an ordinary, upstanding member of the Jewish Nation after punishment has been administered. He should not be suspected or mistrusted, as he had already endured his due punishment. Thus, for example, his testimony is valid and accepted by a court. Surprisingly, the Rambam writes in Hilkhot Eidut (12:4) that this law applies even if the sinner had not repented. A sinner regains his eligibility to testify, the Rambam writes, either after repenting, or after enduring lashes, even without having repented.
The Tolna Rebbe noted that this halakha becomes particularly striking, and instructive, when we consider the circumstances under which a violator would be liable to lashes. In the times when Beit Din had the authority to punish violators, lashes were given only if two witnesses saw the act and forewarned the offender of the punishment to which he would be liable, and the offender verbally acknowledged and dismissed the warning. The rule of “harei hu ke-achikha,” which requires treating a sinner as our “brother,” applies even to those who were fully aware of the law they transgressed and its consequences, were given the opportunity to reconsider their decision, and flagrantly disregarded the warning. Even such people – and, in some circumstances, even without any signs of repentance – must be viewed and treated as “achikha,” as our beloved brethren, worthy of our respect and consideration, and of our trust. Despite the fact that a person committed a Torah violation knowing very clearly what this meant, he can still regain our esteem and affection.
This halakha has much to teach us about the proper way to relate to other offenders, who would not be eligible for lashes. More often than not, people act improperly because of deficient knowledge, misunderstandings, misconceptions, clouded judgment, emotional turmoil, or other circumstances. We have all made mistakes that could have been avoided, but resulted from faulty judgment or a momentary lapse of some sort. If even those deserving of lashes, who transgressed with full conviction, are given the opportunity to regain their standing, then certainly, we must look sensitively, forgivingly and lovingly upon those who err due to misunderstandings or poor judgment. There are many different factors that lead people – including ourselves – to act wrongly, and we must therefore give others the benefit of the doubt and treat them as “achikha” despite their mistakes and failings.