Does an Eye for an Eye make the world blind?

Mishpatim details the legal system of Jewish justice, covering an “eye for an eye’ and what it really means.

In this post I will review the Torah portion of Mispatim (laws).

‘Mishpatim’ is the 6th Sedra (order) of the the book of Sh’mot (Book of Exodus). Mishpatim opens with “And these are the laws you shall place before them (the people of Israel”. Rashi say’s that the word “and” contains a lot of meaning and is implying that the laws in last weeks Torah portion were not just the ten commandments given at Sinai, but also the laws we read about this week. If last week’s Torah portion gave us the “chapter headings” (the general), here we get some of the contents (“the details”).

Mishpatim follows on from Yitro (I’ve yet to my post my review on that which will appear here) where a righteous convert to Judaism, Yitro (Jethro) creates a legal system. In this portion, we receive the particulars of that system. The portion starts to discuss the laws relating to the slave of a Jew. A Jewish slave differs from what society knows as a slave today as there are reasons why a person enters servitude and how they are to be treated when in servitude. The first thing we learn is that he is to leave as he entered, so if he came with a wife and child, then he leaves with his wife and child. He is a slave for 6 years and then on the 7th year he is to leave his servitude. This recalls the structure of the 7 day week, as laid down by G-d at the beginning of the Torah where he rests after 6 day’s of creation. A non Jewish slave takes on the religion of his owner, so a non-Jewish slave becomes, in the servitude of a Jew, a sort of “demi-Jew” who takes on the customs of the house he works for and has an obligation to continue with these customs if set free. The treatment of a slave is of up-most importance: if there is one blanket and the weather is cold, then the Eved (slave) gets the blanket. If after 6 years of work, the slave does not want to leave, then we are commanded to nail his ear to the doorpost and then “he will be his servant for life” (21: 2-6). This is apparently because the ear was what heard the giving of the Torah at Sinai and having experienced slavery in Egypt, the Hebrew now puts a high value on freedom. There’s a famous midrash which say’s the Hebrews at Sinai, following the Exodus from Egypt, were forced to receive Torah by having a mountain held over their heads. On a deeper level I understand this to mean that they were forced to accept Torah on a spiritual level and that the giving of the Torah was a metaphysical event, where the information was forced to their souls. In Judaism there is a concept of all converts having been at Sinai and that would imply that they were not there on a physical level. The idea of being nailed to a door also reminds me of someone reacting in pain; to screaming out and ear piercing has been a sign of slavery since the day’s of Adam. The concept of screaming reminds me of the idea of “Teshuva” (return/repentance) where in history we learn that Ishmael, Avraham’s son with his maidservant Hagar, was spared death as he cried out when dying in the wilderness, this despite the fact that it was known that his descendants would kill many Jews (his descendants are considered to be the Arab peoplewhich later gave birth to the Islamic faith (Bereshit/Genesis 21:17)). In Mesecet Rosh Hashanah (Gemara), a Roman noble woman advised the Jews of Rome, having been on the receiving ends of many harsh decrees to cry out in the streets “why are you doing this to us, aren’t we brothers?” This is referring to Yaakov, a Jewish patriarch being the brother of Esau, who is considered to be the forerunner of the Romans (and later the Christian culture). Both these stores are examples of how descendants branched off from the same family of Jewish patriarchs end up becoming  cruel enemy’s.

(note: what I don’t understand about the slave is what happens if the work he does in six years is not equal to the damage he did, how does he pay it back when the 7th year comes?)

We previously learnt in “Bo” that the Hebrews left their slavery in Egypt with gold and silver, therefore when a slave is set free, he is to be given something at the end of his service. Some people relate this to the concept of severance pay today and in Israel it’s common to receive “pitzuim”, a pay-off of money collected by both the employee and employer during the employment and handed as a lump sum to a person when leaving a job. The slave is also released on the 7th day, reminding us of the 7th day when creation ceased. However, there are differences between the Jewish and non-Jewish slave of a Jew. A non-Jewish slave does not have to be set free after 7 years, can be sold to another owner who must be Jewish and can only marry a person of the same status as them (slave to a Jewish owner). If they are set free they do not receive the financial compensation.

We also receive the Mitzvah of giving Tzedakah (charity/justice). Rashi say’s that God’s four letter name (Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey) denotes the Attribute of Mercy. It is said that when giving Tzedakah, we are literally ‘building the name of HaShem’. When holding the money in a clenched hand it represents the letter Yud, when we open our hand to give, it represents the letter Hey, when we stretch our arm out it represents the letter Vav and when the benefactor opens his hand to receive the money it represents the final letter Hey. Rosh say’s that G-d can see the future and knows if a person is going to sin and nevertheless treats that person with mercy, as we see with Ishmael. We also discover that parents are expected to finance their children until the age of six and this also comes from the concept of a master caring for his charge for six years and therefore any money the child receives in support from his parents after this age is considered Tzedakah.

Another mitzvah revealed in Mishpatim is on how to treat the Ger (convert) and how to treat leaders. We are commanded to treat Gerim (which is interpreted to mean both a stranger and a dweller) with great respect as the Hebrews were strangers in Egypt (Shemot 22:20)  and “Do not oppress the soul of the Ger because you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt ” (23:9). The Ibn Ezra explains that we are to understand that just as we were helpless in Mitzrayim (Egypt) and Hashem rescued us, so Hashem will always be there for the underprivileged, even if we abuse our speech by scorning a previous unbeliever. We are also told that it s forbidden to publicly criticize a leader. We see how much this is violated today in regards to Donald Trump and even the Jews of Persia, facing possible extermination at the hands of Haman did not go about criticizing him in public. Essentially, these mitzvot deal with the most vulnerable and the most powerful in society.

Three of the themes I mention here are the convert, screaming and the ear (which gets nailed to the doorpost). How do I combine these things? We learn in Bereshit (Genesis) that G-d cried out and that Avraham heard him and the convert to Judaism like Avraham and, whose name they take as their own on conversion hear the Torah without force, unlike the Hebrews at Sinai.

So what about an ‘eye for an eye’? This doesn’t mean that when someone takes someone’s eye out, that they in turn get their eye taken out? Why not? Here is an example of why this doesn’t work; what if the original victim was able to recover reasonably well from losing his eye, but his attacker, now also without an eye, get’s an infection and can no longer work? The damage is not equal and therefore Jewish law stipulates that an ‘eye for an eye’ is monetary and each situation must be investigated, with the intention of the criminal being taken into consideration. This is covered in depth in Bava Kama and Rashi puts great emphasis on the loss of a limb as an example of this. We also again find emphasis placed on the status of the people involved and it’s discussed whether there is greater humiliation involved for a rich person being on the receiving end of damages from a poor person. The Gemara finds that this is not the case and also does not exempt a poor person from giving the correct monetary compensation for damages he committed to a wealthy person, giving an ‘eye for an eye’ a sense of equality and personal responsibility.  A non-fatal injury inflicted on another, must be paid via compensation based on five factors: damage, pain, insult, expenses, and lost earning potential. The Gemara also puts forward a case of a wealthy person who has the ability to forego compensation. Mishpatim seems to instill a sense of compassion alongside a legal system not ruled by emotions. When Ghandi said ” an eye for an eye makes the world blind”, he was incorrect; he didn’t know what he was talking about. Ghandi, who in a 1938 essay, showed no empathy for the plight of Jews in Europe was also crude in his opinion of the:  “…cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me.” Jews, he said, should “make… their home where they are born.” It is, moreover, he went on, “inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs.” He’s either ignorant to the reasons why international Jewry would want to re-establish their home in Israel or is as ignorant about Torah as he was to the plight of Jews in Christian and Islamic countries.

We find that intentional killing is met by the death penalty but unintentional killers have the option of going to six cities of refuge; three on the western side of the Jordan and three on the eastern side. The cities of refuge provide a place of safety for the accidental killer in case he be killed in revenge by blood relatives of the victim. The courts would send messengers to these cities to bring the accused to a hearing and to also act as bodyguards. He would be judged accordingly if it was discovered he had killed intentionally and if he hand’t then he would be returned to the city of refuge. The three cities on the western side of the Jordan were Kedesh (in the Galilee), Shechem in the center and Hevron to the South, making them easy to reach by many people. The treatment of parents is also mentioned with ‘striking one’s parents’ listed as a capital offence, as well as cursing them. The context of murder is covered widely in Judaism and it’s said elsewhere that embarrassing a person and causing them to blush is like drawing blood (murder), carelessly spilling seed (from masturbation) is akin to murder (destroying the potential for life) and speaking slander and gossiping, as you are murdering a persons reputation.

In Mishpatim we hear that a thief who turns himself in must return what he’s sold and where a false oath compounded a theft, there can be an added penalty of a fifth (25%). If a thief is caught he pays double or 4 or 5 times in the case of an animal. A thief (male or female) who cannot make full restitution can be sold by the court as an Eved Ivri (Jewish slave) in order to pay off his debts. Animals grazing on someone else’s property is also considered theft and the owner of the land must be reimbursed. We hear of the stray animal that must be returned and returning lost property is a big thing in Judaism. Since living in Israel I’ve had several lost items returned to me including a mobile phone that I’d left on a bus.

Other mitzvah’s covered include: a man who seduces an unmarried women (is required to pay punitive damages and/or marries her. In those days an unmarried women may not have been able to support herself without her father or husband and may not have been able to marry someone else, already having had relations with someone. Today this is unlikely), sorcery (capital offence), sacrificing to another G-d (idolatry and capital offence), taking an animal for  Korban from it’s mother when it’s too young (invalid), inciting others to idolatry (forbidden), the conduct of Judges and courts (must hear both sides of dispute, must not accept testimony from unworthy witnesses, be careful not do anything that might pervert the course of justice and go on the vote of the majority) and giving testimony and several mitzvah’s relating to land of Israel: bringing offerings to the Mikdash on the Shalosh regalim (Pesach, Shavuot and Succot), that we will live full satisfying lives and our enemies will be panic before us and be driven out of the land so that the people of Israel will populate it, forbidden to allow idolaters to have a foothold in the land. I have not covered this portion extensively  as it contains so much.

Shekalim is also read on the same week as we enter the month of Adar and the half shekel is mentioned, which was taken in the census of the people of Israel and used in the building of the Mishcan. The half shekel indicates something that is not complete and we learn from Mystic Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz that every human being is half empty until they unify with another. One example of when we are unified is during the repetition of the Amidah when we all stand still and listen as a group. Giving half shekels as a community also implies we need other to make a whole. On the afternoon of Purim, the half Shekel is given as Tzedakah (to the poor) before the reading of the Megillah and is given in memory of the half shekel given when the Beit HaMikdash stood and whose forthcoming collection was announced on Rosh Chodesh Adar.It was he who said concerning Israel: “There is a certain people scattered and spread out among all the nationalities” (Ester 3:8). The precedence of Israel’s half-shekels therefore serves to rectify this allegation, for they unify the nation. When we’re living in the land of Israel we increase the unity. On the subject of completion I recently heard a story from a Rabbi who had a friend who had 9 children and who wanted a 10th and was very insistent on this (10 implies completion in Judaism). His wife kept miscarrying and didn’t know why. This reminds me of how I feel about Jewish texts regarding personality building; books like the Chofetz Chaims work on L’Shon Hora and the Rambam’s Mishna Tora. If point A is the least optimal point of a persons behavior and point C the most optimal and point B is  the realistic expectations of the person then why are these books written at point C? Because the only thing that is considered perfect is G-d and mankind always has something new to learn, to work towards and room for self improvement. By seeking a 10th child to be fulfilled, the Rabbi’s friend was seeking perfection, something only obtainable by one.