This week in the Torah:
The law of an Idolatrous City, where most if not all of the inhabitants worshipped some form of idolatry, the city as a whole is punishable by death at the hands of the Jewish Court.
Maimonides (Laws of Idolatry 4:6):
“If they retracted and repented then that is sufficient [to repeal their punishment].”
Gemara (Tractate Makkos, 13b):
“Those punishable by death in a court of law are not forgiven by said court even if they repent.”
Does this Gemara not contradict Maimonides above ruling?
Repentance is in the heart. A court’s purpose is to correct the tangible wrongdoings. G-d desires the heart. But evil actions must be rectified physically as well.
The IdolatrousCity’s wrongdoing is unique in that Jewish Unity – even employed in sinning together – makes it a communal law as opposed to that of individuals. Since the heart – Jewish (spiritual) Unity – is responsible for the law designating their act communal, therefore repentance of the heart alone suffices to rectify their united misdeed.
In other words:
Where the physical transgression of law is not caused by the heart alone, the court must carry through with the practical consequence. (Hence the above quote from Gemara.) But where the heart is, as designated by law, the sole contributor to the transgression, repentance suffices. (Hence – Maimonides ruling above.)
a) How considerable is the power of free choice of the Jewish soul, that it can even lend significance to idolatrous acts – changing individual misdeeds into a communal wrongdoing.
b) How far reaching is Jewish Unity, in that it can decide the fate of penitents.
c) How great is repentance, in that it can change the fate of a whole city for the better. (And, in this case, it even retracts a disciplinary ruling of the Jewish court.)
(Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 9, Re’eh