John Ramirez, an honorably discharged US Marine, is scheduled to be executed for crimes committed after his military service on September 8, 2021, the second day of Rosh Hashana. Ramirez is the third honorably discharged US Marine to be scheduled for execution this summer. Learn more and sign the petition here.
A Prayer for Acts of Righteousness
By Rabbi Benjamin Zober
Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day:
it is awesome and full of dread
For on this day Your dominion is exalted,
Your throne established in steadfast love;
there in truth You reign.
In truth You are
Judge and Arbiter, counsel and Witness.
You write and You seal,
You record and recount.
You open the book of our days,
and what is written there proclaims itself,
for it bears the signature of every human being.
A prayer, a warning, a reminder. As we approach the High Holy Days, the Days of Awe, this prayer comes to our lips.
This prayer reminds us that there is one True Judge. It reminds us of our mortality, our frailty, and our failings.
What then of our failings of truth? Where have our attempts at justice fallen short? And most devastatingly, where have we perpetrated injustice? What have we done as judges, arbiters, counsel, and witnesses? What orders bear our handwriting or our seal? What have we committed to permanence in our names? What story do we tell?
As we look to the most sacred of our civic duties — that of our courts of law, we see we have sinned, we have gone astray. We have not meted out justice, we have not pursued it, not twice, not even once, as we continue to kill to teach people that killing is wrong.
On the High Holy Days this year, two men are scheduled to die. John Ramirez, a former Marine, is to be executed in Texas on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, and on Shemini Atzeret, the state of Texas also seeks to kill Rick Rhoades. On these days, as the hosts of heaven are judged alongside us, what will be written of us?
God’s judgment comes from the throne of steadfast love. Our judgment comes from no place so lofty. Our judgment is dimmed and diluted by racism, prejudice, and a system rife with inequities. That the reliability and even the sanctity of the system are so flawed, cannot be dismissed. And yet they are, because our end is vengeance, not justice. Where actual innocence is not enough, we have failed as judges. Where bias and bigotry guide our hands, we are no fair arbiters. Where we do not afford proper representation to those who cannot afford it, we are no counsel. And where coercion, deceit, and self-deception mar our recollections, we are no credible witness.
And still, we write this down. We record, almost certainly for posterity. The irrevocability, the permanent stain on our moral life-histories, written too. And God takes notice. Our signatures, on the affidavits, witness statements, our hands on holy books, swearing to tell only truth, on death warrants — all bear our human signatures. These same marks find their way into God’s books. Books of life that we deface with our machinery of death. Holy books that we desecrate with our transgressions. Annals of history that forever recount our shame.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be;
Who shall live and who shall die.
This is not our task. That we are subject to the fates of the world, that there are forces greater than us, that all we control, does not extend past the boundaries of life and death, should humble us, should warn us, should stop us. On these holiest of days, let us not extinguish more life. Let us not seal our actions in the book of life, with acts of violence against another, mistaken, merciless, damaging acts. Irrevocable acts.
The books are not yet sealed. The ink is not set. What signatures we provide, are still to be drawn. But to execute even one more person, is yet another act that cannot be erased. For all that is still undone, it is not too late. Repentance, prayer, and acts of righteousness can temper judgment’s severe decree. For our own sakes, let us engage in those acts, not vengeance. Let us recognize the harm our injustices have caused, and let us turn and repair. Let us humble ourselves. And let our futures be one of kindness and truth.
Rabbi Benjamin Zober is a former capital appeals attorney and a member of L’Chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty. He and his wife, Rabbi Sara Zober are the rabbis at Temple Sinai in Reno, Nevada.