Passover: A Message of Personal Responsibility

(This article was just published on American Thinker and was written for a general audience.)

Last week, the American College of Physicians (ACP) issued recommendations to address the tragic uptick in drug abuse. Included in the recommendations:

ACP supports the implementation of treatment-focused programs as an alternative to incarceration or other criminal penalties for persons with substance use disorders found guilty of the sale or possession of illicit substances.

Stakeholders should assess the risks and benefits of removing or reducing criminal penalties for nonviolent offenses involving illicit drugs.

Lest one think that the above recommendations refer only to those individuals who are wholly involuntary addicts, having absolutely no control over their drug use and whose culpability may be compared to that of one lacking basic mental capacity, the ACP memo continues:

In 2004, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that about 70% of state and federal prisoners reported regular use of an illicit drug and half of the prison population met clinical criteria for substance use disorder.

 Half of the prison population is surely not in the category of wholly involuntary drug addicts. This gives us perspective of the ACP memo’s parameters for those whom it classifies as having substance abuse disorders. Hence, the ACP memo addresses not only those who have no control over their drug use, but it includes those who are “addicts” in a far looser sense of the term.

While I (and I hope all others) am all in favor of not penalizing someone for acts that are not at all his or her fault, due to total mental incapacity, such that the acts were fully involuntary, ACP is clearly not limiting itself to this category in its proposal that criminal penalties for drug offenses be reduced or eliminated. Rather, ACP is promoting the reduction or elimination of criminal penalties for those with drug issues that are not fully out of these offenders’ control.

People with drug problems should definitely receive comprehensive treatment – no argument there. But to eliminate penalties for drug crimes that are not entirely involuntary is to absolve violators of responsibility, and that is very wrong.

Taking a step back, more than half of the world’s hard-core criminals would appear to have legitimate excuses for their actions: acute anger control problems, unusually elevated hormone levels, impoverishment (that compelled them to burglarize), exceptionally misguided childhood education (which taught hatred of certain groups and perhaps preached violence), and so forth. If these factors — which may very well be present in most criminals — would be allowed to seriously mitigate offenses, then very few offenders would be incarcerated, society would be largely endangered, and people would be absolved of responsibility for their actions.

The Sages of the Talmud and classical rabbinic commentaries view Passover not only as a celebration of the physical freedom attained by the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt over three and a half millennia ago, but also as a celebration of the freedom to abide by the divine moral law and the freedom to rein in one’s personal inclination to sin. God instructed Moses to say to Pharaoh, “Send forth My nation and it will serve Me” (Exodus 7:16); the deeper significance of the Exodus and the eternal message of Passover is that of freedom from bondage to man, so that man can instead be bound to God and can fulfill His Will.

One well-known interpretation in Jewish tradition of Pharaoh’s orders to increase the labor burden on the Hebrew slaves so that “they not turn to words of falsehood” (by demanding their freedom — Exodus 5:9) proffers that Pharaoh did not want to allow his slaves the opportunity to think for themselves. Being overwhelmed and unable to focus on one’s real purpose and aspirations is the antithesis of the message of Passover and the Redemption from Egypt. Passover teaches that authentic freedom is embodied by self-realization of one’s holy mission in life, as part of the overall divine plan. This self-realization means taking ownership of one’s actions and engaging in introspection and self-correction, be it with or without the assistance of others.

As I walk the streets of New York City and I witness a precipitous decline in the quality of life, mirroring the city’s liberal-progressive mayor’s legislative efforts to reverse decades of improved quality of life under his predecessors, Mayor Giuliani and Mayor Bloomberg, I am reminded of Passover’s lesson of taking responsibility and not abdicating it. Policies which tolerate deleterious behavior and excuse wrongdoing encourage the decline of society — it’s that simple.

In the Jewish calendar, the holidays of Passover and Shavuos/Pentecost are connected. Passover represents liberation from bondage to forces that impede one’s relationship with God, and Shavuos/Pentecost represents the occasion of receiving the Divine Law at Sinai. The period between these two holidays is dedicated to spiritual striving and self-improvement, for one must take responsibility and rein in his or her inclination to sin as preparation to receiving the Divine Law.

God is patient and allows time for people to recalibrate and rehabilitate, but if society instead excuses criminality and encourages an abdication of self-responsibility, we are in real trouble. God help us.

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11 Responses

  1. dr.bill says:

    (part of) our mesorah as well as the biblical text tells a more realistic story.  according to our mesoreh it took ~1000 years for the jews to willingly accept the torah, a period often dominated by widespread idolatry and mayhem.  in the text, acceptance was quickly followed up by as bad an example of back-sliding, as one can imagine.

    transformations take time; the consequences of trying to shorten the process can be unfortunate to the extreme.

  2. Steve Brizel says:

    The goal of the Exodus remains paramount that is the acceptance of personal responsibility for ones actions and errors and the rejection of rationalizations for the same. Your question is a fair statement of the fact that a willing acceptance of TSBP took much longer is correct if one realizes and understands that such was necessitated by the building of the Golden Calf and the numerous events and episodes of spiritual decline described in Tanach.

  3. joel rich says:

    the issue is the expansion of the category of anuus(compelled?) activities. of course a pure physicalist would say all activities are predetermined by our biology and thus “compelled”

    • Steve Brizel says:

      Pure devotees of Darwin would say so.I think that if you have spent any time riding inner city mass transit you will see the failure of the approach to solving poverty by declaring war and spending millions of dollars on education and entitlements. If you ride thru the Bronx you will see the failure of that ideology writ large

      • Bob Miller says:

        By their own logic, the “pure devotees of Darwin” are compelled to say the things they say.   So I guess that leaves them unrepentant when their social theories are found to be out of synch with reality as often happens.

  4. SB says:

    Rav Gordimer

    Taking out your points on personal responsibility, I disagree on the other aspect. Why do we need to send people to jail for using drugs?

    IMO jail is a horrible place that dehumanizes the individual. Imagine what it is like trying to be a frum yid in prison.

    In addition, does the Torah condone this type of dehumanization especially for non violent crimes? According to the Torah would Rubashkin be sitting in jail for 28 years  or would he be given the opportunity to repay any money that he caused in damages?

    Why do you accept American judicial sentencing as being humane?

    • Reb Yid says:

      The American system is an embarrassment.  We send a higher proportion of individuals to prison than almost any other country on earth.  It is a very expensive proposition and, as mentioned above, dooms many for life.

      Not to mention the fact that going to prison is not a random matter–our criminal justice system is systematically biased against certain subgroups.  40% of our prison population is African-American–outrageous, and often for possessing small amounts of drugs such as marijuana.  Meanwhile, virtually no white collar criminals spend any jail time at all, if they are even convicted.  To say nothing of cops….


      • Steve Brizel says:

        If you think that so called victimless crimes have no affect on how and where we live ask anyone who remembers the bad old Times Square or visit any rehabilitation center where the price of addiction to our society is all too obvious. Uni iduaks who commit either violent or white collar crime deserve to be tried convicted and to serve tome in correctional facilities geared to the nature of their crimes. That is why white collar criminals go to Otisville and murderers go to maximum security facilities. The failure to have a strong family structure that values education in inner city communities cannot be divorced from any discussion on inner city crime.

  5. Allan katz says:

    The Jewish view of accountability and taking personal responsibility is doing teshuvah , engaging in the moral act of restitution in an autonomous way . This means going through a Rosh  Hashanah and creating a new vision of one self and then with this vision dealing with the past . Prison or other punishments like fines mean that taking responsibility is something external to the person, you pay a price , but you don’t change from the inside and instead of feeling sorry for what you did , you feel sorry for yourself . In Israel for many in prison – doing teshuvah and becoming frum creates a new vsion for the person and then a real commitment to make amends . With Recidivism rates so high , it no wonder that people are looking for different approaches like restorative justice. A focus on prison punishment and retribution actually encourages the abdication of self-responsibility and the understanding that criminals need help and not punishment is not excusing criminals but the only way to help them create a new vision and then engae in an autonmous way in tha act of restitution and make amends.

    • dr.bill says:

      when torah values are applied to a new circumstance, some will see it as modernity overtaking tradition.  whether it is an issue like prison or a woman acting in  some rabbinic role, some see torah while others see modernity.  from my perspective, daat torah – no, daatei torah – perhaps, but more likely just plain daat atzmi.

  6. Steve Brizel says:

    It all depends in who and how Torah is applied in connection with modernity. Merely changing halachic hashkafic and communal norms to suit the Zeitgeist of the Times is far different and should never be confused with applying halachic norms with technological social and scientific developments

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