“Tshuva” happens organically in the psyche of a person; it’s a long process which can last a lifetime.

Illustrative photo of a cloudy sky (photo credit: PUBLIC DOMAIN)
Illustrative photo of a cloudy sky
(photo credit: PUBLIC DOMAIN)
I have been wondering lately about how one does tshuva (repentance) for something as terrible as defying weather warnings and leading youngsters under your care to their death, as happened here in April when 10 mechina students died in the floods. Are there some things that you can never be forgiven for, neither by God, nor by society? What is the Jewish view? Should the school administrators be punished by the courts? Can they repent before God?
Pnina Horowitz
Tzippi Shaked:
I knew a man (‘Yoav’) who “murdered” the daughter of his parents’ best friends. Or so he believes. Some years ago he borrowed a car moments before Shabbat to give a rabbi a lift home. He didn’t see the red light and flew through it, smashing into another car and killing its driver. Her young infant in the back seat survived. With cosmic irony, the driver was terribly familiar to him. One more detail: Our man was one week short of obtaining his official driver’s license.
You asked about a Jewish response. Judaism differentiates between shogeg (negligence) and shogeg hakarov lemezid (gross negligence) because they have different status.
Judaism defines different reasons for punishment:
• To ensure that life is taken seriously
• So the people suffering get closure
• To assist the perpetrators in their own atonement
Note: For some transgressions (kidnapping, murder, and desecration of God’s name), only death can atone.
For causing someone’s death, the Arizal and other rabbinic greats, compiled lists of what one should do. One list refers to punishment and self-affliction, the other proscribes positive acts of tshuva, for the benefit of others.
While the school administrators should/will be punished, I have no doubt they are in the throes of terrible remorse. Let’s find a way where they are punished but can also benefit society.
After punishment, Yoav could have crawled into a dark cave never to retreat. Instead, he went on to great things, single-handedly creating a vibrant Jewish community, extending hessed at every turn. All done in memorial to the life he extinguished.
Pam Peled:
Decades ago, on a family holiday in Europe, a bent-over German man approached my husband, Martin.
“Shalom,” he said. “I was on the Russian front.”
My German is non-existent; I missed the subsequent exchange between the hysterical octogenarian and my increasingly icy husband. Despite the Russian front he must have done some dastardly deeds; now he needed absolution from a Jew so as not to burn in hell forever.
“Forgive me!” he kept screaming.
“Only God can forgive,” my husband replied. We grabbed our little Israeli daughters and ran, as if for our lives.
Martin, sadly, isn’t here to clarify whether he believed that God forgives abominations; I’m sure he didn’t. As for me, I believe that whatever God does or doesn’t do at the moment of death, is between Him and the soul leaving the cadaver. Which God are we talking about anyway, in the case of the Nazi? Surely not the God of the Jews? It’s all very complicated.
Meanwhile, before we die, those who through gross negligence cause the death of others, should surely face the consequences. Of course Yoav didn’t want to kill a young mother. Of course the fine young madrichim at the mechina didn’t want their chanichim to drown. But, willingly or not, they were the reason for immeasurable suffering; it seems so clear that they should be punished. God will deal with repentance in the world to come; in the material world they should be judged and go to jail. There is plenty of hessed to be done among the prisoners.
Danit Shemesh:
There’s a very important mitzva called ‘guard your body/soul’. It begs us to be careful with Hashem’s ‘merchandise’ – to care for our bodies, to avoid danger, to be mindful that we are responsible for our lives. Why would a mitzva so basic need to be considered? Because it reminds us of the importance of us, not to complacently entrust our health to anyone but ourselves. In addition, when someone has the specific job of caring for others’ lives, extra responsibility is expected.
The laws of shogeg and mezid that Tzippi referred to clarify the difference between manslaughter and murder in Judaism. Killing by accident is not punished in the same way as premeditated murder.
I remember hearing of a bus driver who didn’t notice the child under his wheels. Despite a consensus that it wasn’t his fault, the driver was inconsolable. He wailed that the child’s death came about through him. Despite never being punished by law, he was never the same again. Tshuva happens organically in the psyche of a person (unless he is a psychopath); it’s a long process that can last a lifetime.
If a Sanhedrin existed today, this case would be judged not as a capital crime, but as negligence. There are levels of negligence; the worst is unintentional direct killing by one’s hand, as when an ax flies out of that hand, killing a passerby. This drowning catastrophe came about through ignoring important, available information. The courts should explore whether this negligence was due to hubris, inattention, or the lack of prioritizing life, and punish those who are guilty accordingly.
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