Towards the end of Parashat Ki-Teitzei, the Torah addresses the case of a violator who was found guilty of transgressing a Torah law, for which he is liable to lashes. The Torah warns, “Arba’im yakenu, lo yosif” – the court official administering the lashes must ensure not to lash the sinner any more than he deserves. The simple reading of the verse suggests that the sinner is given forty lashes, but the Mishna (Makkot 22a) explains the verse to mean that the court official administers thirty-nine lashes. In any event, the Torah strictly prohibits whipping a convicted violator even once more than required.
The message conveyed by this law applies well beyond the narrow framework of court-administered punishment, and is relevant in all cases of necessary reactions to wrongdoing. The Torah here perhaps teaches us that on those occasions when criticism or disciplinary measures are warranted, we must exercise extreme care to ensure not to say or do any more than is needed to achieve to desired purpose. Even once we determine that criticism or condemnation needs to be expressed, or, in the case of a child or student, disciplinary action must be undertaken, we are warned, “lo yosif” – not to extend at all beyond what is appropriate and warranted. Too often, our anger, our desire to assert authority, or the thrill of controversy drives us to emotional outbursts or disproportionate responses to that of which we disapprove. Religiously-sanctioned criticism and anger can be very dangerous, as it often leads a person to allow himself to break his usual constraints and freely indulge in rage or condescension in the name of the alleged holy objective he seeks to achieve. And thus the Torah warns, “Arba’im yakenu, lo yosif,” demanding that any punitive actions we take or critical words we speak be meticulously calculated and limited. Even a single “lash” beyond that which can be reasonably deemed appropriate and necessary for achieving the desired purpose is illegitimate and must be avoided.