25 Shevat 5778 – Mishpatim

Poking out an eye?? 

None of us are perfect. We all do things we regret. So how do we make amends? How do we correct a crime?

The dilemma

There is a bizarre Torah law in this week’s portion of Mishpatim (22:24) that says that if a person harms another than the measure of his retribution must be ‘an eye for an eye’. From a literal understanding this means that if someone poked out another person’s eye, his eye must be poked out in return. Yet the Rabbi’s have interpreted this law otherwise. Surely, they say, we don’t go over the perpetrator and take his eyeball out. Rather, the payback is financial in nature. We calculate what an eye is worth to a person and this amount is given over to correct the wrong. 

But doesn’t this teaching of the Rabbi’s clearly contradict the literal understanding of the verse? The Torah says an eye for an eye! Why ‘kvetch’ into the verse a different understanding?!

The Analogy

Rav Kook (Chief Rabbi of Israel pre-1948) shares the following analogy. When parents discipline a child for a serious offence, it often looks something like this. The father immediately raises his hand to punish the child. But the mother, full of compassion, rushes to stop him. “Please, not in your anger”, she pleads and convinces the father to carry out a lighter punishment. 

Now, an onlooker may look and say that the child really deserved a stricter punishment. He seems to be getting off light. Yet this scene has imparted an important message to the child. Even though he only received a lighter punishment, he is made to understand that really he is deserving of a much more severe punishment.

The application

This analogy applies to our case when a person injures another. In practice, the perpetrator only pays monetary restitution, as the Oral Law rules. But this person should not think that with money alone they can repair the damage they inflicted. Rather, they should be made to realise that a more severe punishment was deserving – a realisation that will compel them to do more to make amends with the victim and those impacted by the crime. The process of reparation should cause a change in the perpetrator – making the person more sensitive, more giving, more caring.

The message

Yes, we all commit wrongdoings. In fact, that’s part of being human. And yes, we must make amends in a real and genuine way. But we must also experience a lesson in humility and realise that really we ‘got off light’. We must then alter our behaviour to ensure that we do all we can to enhance the life of the other person and, in fact, of all of those around us. I hope you enjoy this tidbit of Torah insight – Shabbat Shalom and see you in Shule!

Rabbi Yossi and Chana Raizel Friedman

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