This week’s Torah reading, Mishpatim, contains the famous phrase: “an eye for an eye”. It introduces a list of injuries that are to be repaid with the same injury. In the ancient world, chances are these words were taken literally, but in Jewish texts, we see that the discussion begins, almost immediately, on whether it is the actual eye, or the monetary equivalent.
We know that, in the end, the Jewish judicial process will introduce the concept of equivalence within the law –an assessment of damages, rather than the actual infliction of damages. But how did we become so bold as to interpret Torah in this way?
Interestingly, the discussions do not begin with a question of whether a court should be inflicting physical damage on anyone, since even imprisoning someone is taking away physical freedom. The debate centres on whether we could actually do what the Torah has told us to do. What if the injury is only partial –could we be sure that the court’s action would likewise only partially injure in the same way? In other words, the Torah has told us to do something we are incapable of doing. We view these moments as invitations to engage with our Torah and explore it from the inside.
Generally, we understand that everyone moves from the known to the unknown. In this case, we know how we function when we are capable, and we know how we function when we are diminished, but we don’t know how that could be projected onto someone else. We now understand that we are projecting the difference, not the injury. We can calculate the difference.
We also know that each generation will have its own set of ‘knowns’ and ‘unknowns’; Judaism shows us how the words of the Torah will teach this process to each generation, no matter where in time they are placed. It is how we see the growth and evolution of Torah, and Jewish values, and that this growth was intended from the very beginning. It is how we understand these laws to be eternal and forever meaningful.
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.