When one is wronged and when one is harmed, the natural response is to retaliate. We want others to experience the pain, the heartache, and the suffering that we have experienced. We find such retaliation in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim.
Referring to the consequences of a physical fight, Exodus 21:23-24 clarifies for us the classic Ayin Tachat Ayin, Eye for an Eye, case:
But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
The text seems pretty straight forward. Thankfully, scripture is not black and white. Our understanding of text is not set in stone. We wrestle with it. We interpret it, and then we interpret it again. Judaism is a faith that attempts to understand the meaning of the Torah and how it applies to our lives. Judaism is a rabbinic religion, not a Torah religion, and the rabbis never seemed comfortable with such a straight forward understanding of the verse.
As Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (11th century, France), explained:
[Eye for an Eye means] If he blinded someone’s eye, he must pay him the value of the eye, as determined by how much his value in the slave market is lessened by the loss of an eye. The same applies to all the other organs mentioned. As our Sages explain in Chapter 8 of Tractate Bava Kamma, his own eye or any other organ is not removed.
The rabbis understand this verse in the Torah to mean financial retribution for the loss of a body part or limb. It certainly did not mean harming those who harmed us. What good comes from the perpetual cycle of violence? What good comes from harming another? Does it really make you feel better inside? Hurting another does not make your own injury go away. It does not heal you. It only hurts another. It is easy to get revenge. It is expected of us; that is the animal instinct within each of us. But we strive for more. The rabbis, in their explanation and interpretation of this verse, believed that the Torah — and thus God — charged us to be better than that. God charges us to overcome our animal instinct. We should not get revenge. We should not hurt others, just because they hurt us. We should be financially compensated for our losses, but we should forgive. Hurting is easy. Forgiving is hard. Yet, that is what our holy scripture asks of us.
After all, as Gandhi once taught, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” May we be bigger than those who bully us. May we be stronger than those who hurt us. May we have the true strength to walk away, to not harm others, and to forgive those who have hurt us. As it says in Proverbs 16:32 “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty.”
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky