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Eye for an Eye: Leaving Revenge Behind  #777

05/05/2023 05:09:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Emor
“If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done, so shall it be done to him; fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” (Leviticus 24:18-19).
Eye For Eye: Leaving Revenge Behind

Villager: We should defend ourselves. An eye for an eye—A tooth for a tooth! Tevya: Very good. That way the whole world will be blind and toothless.

This brief exchange between the villager and Tevya portrays one reason why the script of the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, remains one of the wisest and most quoted texts in all of modern Judaism.

Within Tevya’s horribly mangled Jewish quotations, and uphill battle to uphold tradition over modernity, his wisdom, as dispensed in Fiddler on the Roof, remains relevant today.

It is especially true this week, because near the end of the Torah portion—titled Emor (Speak)—we are presented with one of the most quoted and, perhaps, misinterpreted phrases within all of western religion.

“If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done, so shall it be done to him; fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” (Leviticus 24:18-19).

This often-quoted biblical verse leaves much room for debate. Some Talmudic sages argued that the phrase should be taken literally, that reciprocity and revenge are important ways to achieve justice.

But the majority of rabbis disagree.

They interpret the phrase to mean that knocking out someone’s tooth or blinding them serves no purpose other than, as Tevya noted, to create a blind and toothless world.

Rather, our Sages promoted a model that encouraged monetary compensation for one who was physically harmed by another.

Noted the great Sage, Moshe ben Nachman (1194-1270), in the case where someone causes another physical harm, “What he must do is pay him the amount of the damage he did to him.”

Says the Mishnah, Judaism’s written collection of oral wisdom, “One who injures his fellow is liable concerning him for five categories of payment: damages, pain, healthcare, unemployment, and shame.”

This debate over the “eye for an eye” passage provides a wonderful window into what made—and continues to make—those ancient words relevant today.

We do not prescribe to the idea that if someone harms you, you are entitled to return the injury with twice the force.

Clearly, we live in a world where revenge, retaliation and reprisal have reached epidemic proportions. That may be the philosophy of vigilantes or of some in positions of power, but it is clearly not the Jewish way.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, this year, as of May 1, at least 13,959 Americans have died from gun violence. That’s an average of about 115 deaths per day.

And many of those deaths—whether in the inner city or in more affluent communities—have occurred because someone believes they have the right to protect or retaliate. They call it Stand Your Ground.

But no matter what this week’s Torah portion instructs, our Sages tell us that sometimes we are obligated to disobey what the Torah says.

Despite what it states in the Torah, there is no evidence of any misbehaving youth ever being stoned to death. And one thousand years ago, contrary to the biblical text, our rabbis outlawed a person acquiring multiple spouses.

Indeed, while many call us the People of the Book, that title is often misguided. More accurately, we are the People of Debate, Discussion and Discourse; more precisely, we are a nation of interpretation.

Within other religious traditions, courts often take the “eye for an eye” directive literally. It is not unheard of within other religious courts for a thief to have their hand cut off. But that is not the Jewish way.

Rather, Judaism seeks peace, justice and resolution as opposed to pain, reprisal and retaliation. Or, according to Tevya:

“If you spit in the air, it lands in your face.”

And this understanding extends beyond physical injury.

Indeed, what are the High Holidays about if not to request pardon from another person we have harmed, or grant forgiveness to one who approaches us with an apology?

Within both physical and emotional injury, Judaism seeks closure.

Too often we carry invisible or written lists of grievances or perceived sins we believe others have committed against us. Perhaps we hold on to these memories too tightly.

But Judaism teaches that in order to achieve our full potential, we must find a way to delete—or at least neutralize—the spiritual baggage we carry.

While this week’s Torah reading may—on the surface—lead us toward a theology of revenge concerning eyes, teeth and broken bones, it also inspires us to consider the fractures remaining within.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Shais Taub, notes that if we are busy judging others, we are wasting the limited moments of our lives. He states: “If I’m busy being God, who is busy being me?”

So let us listen to the wisdom of our Sages, who encourage us to find ways to resolve the physical or emotional conflicts within our lives.

The first five of the Ten Commandments deal with the relationship between God and humanity, while the second five relate to how human beings relate to each other.

We must pay attention to both.

We are not a people that promotes inflicting pain upon those who have hurt us. Rather, the Torah reminds us “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof—Justice, justice shall you pursue. We pursue other measures.

Whether during the High Holidays or every day, we need to consider ways to rid ourselves of lists, score cards and grudges, and embrace Shalom Ba’it—peace within our domain.

It is the way we as a Jewish people have survived for thousands of years. We have participated in often difficult and painful discussions on the road to a more perfect world

Two tablets working in harmony. The written word tempered by oral tradition. The Torah enhanced by context

As it was when the Torah was written—as it is today

Sunrise, sunset

It is who we are: A people in search of balance. A Torah we can truly practice every day.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784