By Reb David
After the Revelation at Sinai, after hearing the divine Voice and receiving the Ten Commandments, the people returned from the mountain to find the grind of imperfect human life waiting for them below. As Jack Kornfield noted in “After Ecstasy, the Laundry,” we don’t live only in our spiritual peaks: our path is to uplift daily life precisely in its constraints and imperfections. That is the call of this week’s Torah portion (Mishpatim).
Best reflecting this mix of holy and ordinary is Mishpatim’s rule about breaking rules. How should we react to imperfections, even violence, in daily life? Torah answers with a seemingly unforgiving “eye for an eye”:
When people fight … the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise (Ex. 21:22-25).
Scholars call this rule lex talionis (“law of teeth”), named for its “tooth for tooth” reference. Talmud’s rabbis wisely read it to require monetary compensation and not literally “eye for an eye” (B.T. Bava Kama 83b). Even so, we’re still talking about “eye for an eye.” In “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye quipped that “eye for an eye” can leave the world blind and toothless. Christian Scripture seems to repudiate the idea altogether: the Sermon on the Mount teaches “[D]o not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39). Buddhists teach non-violence and non-reaction; Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. applied nonviolent resistance to historic effect — which we especially honor at this time of commemorating Dr. King’s legacy.
All true. Mishpatim’s focus, however, is not only the individual but also the breadth of diverse society, its beauty and tragedy, seeking to uplift Spirit not just at Sinai’s peak but also in pits of vulgarity and even violence. This goal is essential if Torah is to be lived rather than fetishized. To achieve this feat for a ragtag clan of newly freed slaves who maybe never knew comfort or spirituality, Torah had to meet them where they were. A calling too grand or impractical could have no effect: it’d land on the scrapheap of history. Enter lex talionis.
“Eye for an eye,” however, is not merely a second-best artifact of history: it’s spiritually and legally extraordinary given what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say, as typical in its day, that the high and mighty have one law while the weak have another. Rather, for the first time, Torah sets one standard for everyone: the powerful aren’t exempt and the weak aren’t to be tyrannized. Mishpatim continues, “Do not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9). “You will have one law for the alien and the citizen” (Lev. 24:19) — finally, equal law for all.
What “eye for an eye” does say is as revolutionary as what it doesn’t say. Lex talionis sets a standard of reciprocity: defend oneself but don’t over-respond with more. Lex talionis bans grudges, retaliation and blood lust. It sets a goal of objectivity that limits power: society can’t mete out subjective penalties. And it sets a standard of predictability: it puts everyone on notice about clear consequences – the very opposite of the taskmaster’s arbitrary lash.
“Eye for an eye” was radical and remains so. In its practicality, it recognizes that our world is imperfect and that people will break rules: they’ll even break our hearts. “Eye for an eye” aims to arch over this brokenness with the poignant hope of equality, reciprocity, objectivity and predictability. Together these speak against haughtiness. They ask us to remember that we’re all in it together. They ask us to release hurts, banish grudges, affix wise consequences for poor choices and then, critically, move on.
What’s more, scientists are finding that “eye for an eye” is an elegant solution to the most vexing social problems. National Public Radio recently reported that “eye for an eye” turns out to be the best answer to the “prisoner’s dilemma,” a societal phenomenon in which we seem to have incentives to take advantage of each other. But when we all apply “an eye for an eye” — treating others equally, rewarding cooperation and predictably meeting others where they meet us — society evolves to become more cooperative, more altruistic and less distrustful. In a literal way, “eye for an eye” is how the world got out of the Cuban Missile Crisis without a nuclear war. So rather than make the whole world blind, sometimes “an eye for an eye” can actually help the whole world to see. By teaching us cooperation, by teaching us how to say “yes” to each other despite our differences, an “eye for an eye” might be the ticket to saying “aye” — yes! — to spiritual life with both feet firmly planted in this imperfect world.
Whatever the rule-break or heartbreak of our lives, this week’s portion reminds us that together we are on a collective trajectory toward justice — the משפט / mishpat of this week’s Torah portion. When hurt happens, we can hold forgiveness in our heart but still build predictable incentives for ethical behavior that can protect us from future harm. And in time, if we all do that, our world will evolve toward cooperation, altruism and trust.
What a gift if we could descend from Sinai to that kind of world: indeed, it might be heaven on earth.