The conclusion of last week’s parasha left us stunned and breathless, as the experience of the revelation settled in. The initial experience was about the phenomenon itself, about the sanctity of the spiritual realm- “Anochi Ado/nay Elohecha”, I am G-d, YOUR personal god. This personal relationship, the essence of Judaism, carries with it a staggering responsibility. Our covenantal relationship requires the Jewish people to model the results of this spiritual relationship to the world at large. The last mitzvah from last week’s parasha was the commandment to make an altar, for various offerings to be detailed later.
The Rambam (Maimonedes) writes that the very act of bringing an offering is that of self sacrifice, that we should be offering our very lives to G-d (think of the binding of Isaac), but are blessed to be only bound symbolically to that concept. We instead offer up something of value in place of our lives. In the biblical model that would be an animal of value, and our donation would additionally feed and clothe those who sustained the tabernacle and temple. In the rabbinic model, which temporarily replaces the sacrificial system during the period of exile, we offer monetary charitable gifts, and specific offerings of prayer.
In this week’s sidra we learn how we are to represent our spiritual ideals in the real world, so to speak. We are presented with a series of mishpatim, of civil laws, which teach us how to interact with others in a holy manner. The fact that these laws form the basis of the modern legal system is an acknowledgment of the strength of the Torah, which posses a keen awareness to the motivation and behavior of mere humans. Judaism teaches that this system of legal responsibility is in fact universal, binding on Jew and Gentile alike. To imagine, however, that these principles are only reflecting a societal need is inviting a kind of moral relativism that is antithetical to the timelessness of Torah.
So, when a civil principle seems beyond our initial comprehension we must dig deeper, to uncover the point the Torah is actually making.
“Ayin tachat ayin, shain tachat shain…”, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.. (Ex. 22:24).
This verse is perhaps one of the most misunderstood in the entire bible. A literal understanding would indicate that retribution mirroring the original offense was required, and justified. Of course Jewish law does not actually require a comparable action in cases of bodily injury…that would put too many Jewish lawyers out of work! The oral law, as explained in the Talmud, teaches that it is the monetary value of the injury that is required to make restitution -that, and a heartfelt request to the injured party for forgiveness. Logic and scriptural analysis easily support that concept.
Our sages offer various reasons for the monetization of the injury. The Talmud in Bava Kamma (83B) quotes Rabbi Shimon saying, “an eye for an eye refers to money”. The Talmud quotes the verse “You shall have one manner of law…” (Lev 24:22) and points out that a blind person could not receive equal punishment under the law for causing loss of sight in another.
Other sages say it SHOULD be literal; we make financial restitution knowing deep down that we actually deserve a similar loss ourselves.
Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel teaches this point through a mashal, an allegorical story.
When parents discover their son has committed a very grave offense, how do they react?
The father immediately raises his hand to punish his son. But the mother, full of compassion, rushes to stop his raised arm. “Please, not in anger!” she pleads, and she convinces the father to mete out a lighter punishment.
An onlooker might feel that all this drama and conflict is superfluous. In the end, the child did not receive corporal punishment. Why make a big show of it?
In fact, the scene had great educational value for the errant son. Even though he was only lightly disciplined, the son was made to understand that his actions deserved a much more severe punishment.
Like the Rambam states, no legal consequence can take the place of a spiritual trial we must put ourselves through when we fall short of the Torah’s demands on our conduct. We do not absolve ourselves of our ultimate obligations by a mere fine, or a burnt offering. By working to strengthen our sensitivity to the human condition we can get even closer to our personal G-d, and be worthy of our opportunity to be a light among nations.