Measure for Measure
By Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s Parsha, Mishpatim, contains the first set of laws Moses transmitted to the Jews after the great Revelation on Mt. Sinai. The subject matter of most of these laws is social justice. The Torah has many rules regarding one’s responsibilities towards others. It is especially demanding of how we treat someone’s property. We must do our utmost to avoid causing monetary damage to our fellow man. It goes without saying that we must be even more careful not to inflict physical harm on anyone. The Torah spells out the punishment for physical violence in stark detail. The verse states, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot; a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.”
Few verses of the Torah have caused as much misunderstanding as this one. Many self- styled “theologians” have castigated Judaism as being a religion of revenge and not mercy. They failed to consider other statements in this parsha which warn us to not stand idly by the blood of our brother, return the lost objects of even a complete stranger, and to come to the assistance of one’s “enemy” whose animal has fallen under its load. The Torah teaches us that G-d’s mercies extend to all His creatures and we are enjoined from causing pain even to animals. The truth is that no people are as compassionate as the Jews. Israeli medical treatment, the most advanced in the Middle East is equally dispensed to Jew and Arab alike. When Palestinians, regardless of their politics, have serious medical issues they choose an Israeli hospital over an Arab one, every time. Israel provides treatment to Syrians wounded by their own government in spite of the fact they get no credit for it. When disaster strikes anywhere the Israelis, with their advanced field hospitals and cutting-edge techniques, are the first to arrive and save lives. The Jewish people are accurately described in the Talmud as “merciful ones, who are children of merciful ones.” Those who malign the Jews are guilty of evil speech and defamation of character. It is they who harbor cruelty which they project onto Israel.
What then is the meaning of the verses which call for the punishment of “an eye for an eye?” All of the laws of the Torah are defined and elucidated by the Oral explanations which Hashem gave to Moses on Sinai and which have been transmitted to the leading Torah scholars of every generation up to the present day. The Talmud makes clear that these verses are not to be taken literally, but, rather, are referring to monetary compensation. According to the Oral Law, there was never a court in Jewish history that extracted an “eye for an eye.” Rather, the intention was to pay the monetary worth of the limb, which the offender extracted. Proof that this is the case is the fact that there are many chapters in the Talmud dealing with the complicated legal matter of assessing the monetary value of human limbs and organs. Not to mention the evaluation of other damages such as pain, unemployment, embarrassment, etc. The notion that Jewish jurisprudence took the injunction of a limb for limb literally is ignorant at best and malicious at worst.
One may ask, if the true intention of the Torah is to exact monetary indemnities for bodily damage, why doesn’t it say so outright? Why use language which clearly implies that the exact physical damage inflicted by the perpetrator of the assaults will be visited on him? The great Sage Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik provided a fascinating explanation. The Torah, he said, is concerned with justice. Absolute justice is based on the principle of “measure for measure.” One who has the audacity to remove the limb of his friend has lost the ability to identify with the suffering of another. True justice demands that he be made to experience the same pain he inflicted, in order to know what it feels like and repent for his cruelty. On the highest level of justice, man needs to suffer an “eye for an eye.” However, the Creator in His mercy, recognized the inability of people to sustain such punishment and allowed for a substitute of monetary compensation. When making the payment, the criminal should pause and remember that he truly deserves to lose his limb, but the restitution is an expression of Divine mercy which, hopefully, he will now display towards all of G-d’s creatures. To label Judaism as a religion of revenge is foolish and malicious slander. To the contrary, it is the religion of true compassion, i.e., that which integrates the highest level of truth and justice.