The words from the central High Holy Day passage are chilling and awesome. They limn the unknown future in stark terms. When I heard them each year as a child, I was frightened. There followed a list of different ways in which dying could happen. Then, at the end of the passage came the reassuring words that “Prayer, Penitence and Charity can avert the evil decree.”
The words have been changed somewhat in revised editions of the High Holy Days prayer books. But the fundamental message is the same. We each face choices in our behavior in the year ahead. On the Day of Judgment, we stand before God to reveal ourselves — our thoughts and our actions. We are asked to search our conscience and forgive others. And it is incumbent upon us to do better in the year ahead.
In the secular world, there are also questions of life and death that are a part of our mores and our laws. One of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet, in every society, as in ours there are circumstances where killing is not only allowed, but proscribed. The Armed Forces train members to kill with deadly weapons. When they do this with great distinction in battle, they are awarded medals. It was ever thus. In civilian life, a person attacked may fight off an assailant and kill in self defense. This is recognized as appropriate behavior for which there is no legal penalty. There are both federal and state crimes defined as capital offenses. And there are states with the death penalty states without . In certain states with the death penalty, a life sentence without parole is not an option.
How do we as individuals and citizens sort this all out? We each have our own beliefs as to whether capital punishment should ever occur. Some have the exception only in the case of heinous crimes or the death of police officers. Studies consistently show that the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent. In fact, homicide rates are higher in states with the death penalty than in states without. Many homicides are crimes of passion without forethought. Today, courts in different states have complex bodies of law and criteria for presenting a case to the jury.
A recent study revealed that minority group members are more likely to face the death penalty for inter-racial homicides. Of the l77 defendants who faced the death penalty for killing a person of another race since 1955, 55 percent were African Americans, 25 percent were Hispanic, 11 percent were Caucasian and 8 percent were from other groups. Although the focus is on federal cases, the vast majority of people on death row are there under state laws. States executed 4,400 people from l930 to 1999 according to the Justice Department, compared to 33 federal executions since l930. And there were 3,433 people with death sentences in the states as of l998, compared to l9 people in federal prisons with death sentences. The issue of racial disparity exists in state cases and death penalty sentencing as well. Since l972, when the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty as unconstitutional, certain states have revised their laws and conducted numerous executions. Some are high profile. Others are not.
When we look outside the United States today, the plight of millions of Syrian refugees is front page news as they try desperately to reach European countries. They have lost their homes and possessions. They walk hundreds of miles or take boats to reach a country that will take them. The picture of a little boy’s body washed up on the beach, after his family tried to take a rubber raft to safety, shocked the world. When it capsized, only the father survived. His wife and daughter also drowned.
Our rabbi started Rosh Hashanah services with the need for members of our congregation to act now to help these people. There was a paper waiting for us in the lobby when services were over that gave the names of three organizations working to help the refugees. Phone calls and dollar donations are needed. “Charity” to join our “Penitence and Prayer”. There is also a direct link to the last two questions that Hillel posed two thousand years ago. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But, if I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, when?” — the clarion call to action