The Torah in Parashat Shoftim designates idol worship as a capital offense, for which one would be (under certain circumstances) liable to execution in the times when courts were empowered to administer capital punishment. In a situation where one is confirmed guilty of worshipping idols, the Torah commands, the perpetrator is taken “el she’arekha” – “to your gates” – where the punishment is administered.
Targum Onkelos translates “she’arekha” in this verse as “tera beit dinakh” – “the gate of your court.” In the view of Onkelos, it seems, capital punishment was administered outside the court which convicted the offender. Rashi, however, after citing Onkelos’ translation, writes that this is incorrect. The Gemara in Masekhet Ketubot (45b) states explicitly that this refers to “sha’ar she-avad bo” – the “gate” of the place where the violator worshipped an idol. This is inferred from the fact that the same term – “she’arekha” – is used several verses earlier, when the Torah describes the case of a person found worshipping idols (“Ki yimatzei be-kirbekha be-achad she’arekha”). Just as the word “she’arekha” in the earlier verse refers to the site of the idol worship, this word in the latter verse also refers to the site of the idol worship, requiring that the violator be punished at that site.
The reason behind this law might be the desire to avoid giving the impression that the court is to blame for the tragic loss of life. If the punishment were administered by the Beit Din, people might overlook the violation that was committed, and focus their attention solely on the court, as though the blame for this unfortunate sequence of events lay squarely with the judges. Administering the punishment at the site of the prohibited act has the effect of associating the tragic result in people’s minds with the sinful act, rather than with the Beit Din. They are thus reminded that the blame lies with the perpetrator, and not with the court which convicted the perpetrator.
The practical lesson of this halakha perhaps relates to the unpleasant experience of hearing criticism or being punished for mistakes we make. Our instinctive reaction in such situations is to defend ourselves, disavow guilt, and resent the person expressing the criticism or giving the punishment. The Torah here reminds us of the need to take responsibility for our mistakes, to acknowledge our guilt, to blame the humiliating experience on our own wrongdoing, rather than resent the other party. When we face the hurtful consequences of our mistakes, our thoughts should be directed inwards, toward ourselves, in an effort to learn from our wrongdoing and commit ourselves to improve henceforth, thereby transforming our mistakes into valuable experiences which ultimately make us better people.