The young man who was brought into the court seemed out of place. Judge Mishpott was accustomed to meeting suave, well-groomed and well-seasoned criminals, on the one hand, and uncouth and grossly ungroomed young rebels who had broken the law as an expression of their discontent.
This young man did not appear to belong to either group. In fact, he seemed just the type that the good judge would be happy to have as a member of a new family of next door neighbors. His clothing was clean and neat, respectable but not ostentatious. His manner was natural, with a touch of shyness, but ample poise.
When asked to state his name and address, he responded to the point, clearly, and with due respect to the court. It came as no surprise to the man on the bench that David was the son of a close and respected colleague of his. Right from the first, the head of the court took a liking to the defendant.
“Everyone makes mistakes,” he told himself. “This fellow must have gotten himself into some scrap, he told himself. He’ll surely learn his lesson quickly, and not do it again. I’ll acquit him, or at least let him off with only a token fine.”
The standard questions were asked, answered, and the data recorded. It was time for the prosecutor, Taguere, to get down to the meat of the case.
“Of what is the defendant accused?” asked Mishpott, assuming the mask of cold impartiality he donned when in court.
“Exceeding the speed limit,” replied the prosecuting attorney.
“Not the end of the world,” said Mishpot, as much to himself as to the D.A. “Show me a driver who keeps within the posted limits nowadays…” he added with the indulgent smile of a benevolent grandfather.
“He was filmed driving 160 miles per hour in a residential area,” retorted the prosecutor. The smile on Judge Mishpott’s lips disappeared faster than a popsicle caught under a super blow dryer. 130 mph? No one, not even a young fellow with the reflexes of a cougar, can control a vehicle at such a speed, he thought to himself.
The DA had something to add: “Traveling at the aforementioned speed, the defendant entered Maple Avenue from the west, despite the fact that Maple is one-way-street, from the east.”
Instinctively, the judge’s lips closed tight. What if a vehicle moving in the permitted direction had turned into Maple just then? One hundred sixty mph in the wrong direction could be tantamount to manslaughter.
The judge’s thoughts were cut short. Mr. Tagguere continued. “At 10:57, a vehicle entered Maple Avenue from the east, and confronted the defendant’s vehicle.”
The judge’s bushy eyebrows moved heavenward. “What happened?” he asked curtly.
“Due to his excessive speed, the defendant was unable to brake his vehicle. He veered sharply to the right, and lost all control of his car. The vehicle careened into a storefront, smashed the show window, destroyed the counters and all the merchandise, and rammed into the rear wall of the building.”
Judge Mishpott cast a scrutinizing glance at the face of the defendant. He appeared tense; the sound of the smattering glass, the acrid stench of burning rubber and the stifling cloud of air, thick with crumbling cement and debris, all came back to him as though he were living through it once more.
Mr. Tagguere paused, paced back and forth before his honor the judge, then turned on his heel and continued his prosecution.
“The rear wall of the structure collapsed from the impact of the defendant’s vehicle. The second story of the building, and the roof, caved in and landed on a family of four, in their sleep.”
The judge leaned forward, tense and anxious. “And…?” he asked expectantly.
“All four members of the family were killed instantly,” concluded the prosecutor.
Judge Mishpott’s glance shot back to the young man in the dock. His face was white. He was hardly breathing.
Mr. Tagguere retired, and left the court in silence.
His Honor took a deep breath. The case was not at all what he had anticipated; far from it.
He turned to the defendant, his face stern and heavy with the years: “What have you to say?” he asked the young man.
“I deeply regret the deaths of the innocent victims of this accident,” he replied. It was obvious from his demeanor that he would have given a great deal to somehow undo the tragedy that he had caused. But how?
Judge Mishpott took in his sincere remorse, and attempted to put it to the defendant’s advantage.
He leaned forward toward this young man who appeared so wholesome, yet had brought a violent end to four innocent lives.
“The next time you see a sign with a red circle and a broad, white horizontal stripe across it, how will you proceed?” he asked, with all the concern of a kindly grandfather trying to educate a wayward grandson.
“I will stop the car, and I will look around to the right and to the left, before I go any further,” declared the defendant earnestly. His tone was so sincere, that no one in the court doubted that he would, indeed, do just that, if given the chance. One and all gasped in disbelief. He had been driving a car for years now – and at 130 miles per hour – without even knowing the meaning of the basic traffic signs.
And who could tell what other knowledge of road safety he was lacking?
The judge shook his head in dismay. He would much prefer to play the role of kindly grandfather than reprimanding adjucator, but how could he possibly return this ignorant young man to the driver’s seat, and put the steering wheel of a vehicle in his hands?
With all respect to his deep regret for the tragedy he had wrought, there was no way to exonerate him from guilt for snuffing out four human lives prematurely, through his ignorance of the most basic rules of road safety.
We come before our Creator on Yom Kippur and express our regret for our sins. We beat upon our hearts in remorse for our misdeeds, not only on the Day of Repentance, but every weekday.
No matter how great our remorse for past misdeeds, if we do not trouble ourselves to acquire a thorough knowledge of our Creator’s “rules of the road” – commandments which He issued to each and every Jew – how can we come before Him to seek His forgiveness and mercy for the future?