Posted on March 23, 2011
by Anna Hutt
Parshat Emor, the third to last parsha in the book of Vayikra, begins with a listing of special laws for the Kohanim, the priests of the Children of Israel, concerning limitations on marriage and requirements for offering sacrifices. Next, Hashem instructs Moses to address the entire nation of Israel and set out for them the holy times that He has sanctified: Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The last part of Emor, which I found the most puzzling and interesting, deals with the topic of justice.
In chapter 24, verse 20, we encounter the famous line, “Shever tachat shever; ayin tachat ayin; shen tachat shen-A fracture for a fracture, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
I have heard this verse quoted many times before, and it has always struck me as such an extreme example of justice. In today’s society, do we live by this law? After all, if we really punished wrongdoers by inflicting the exact same crime upon them that they committed, wouldn’t we ourselves be criminals? (This is one of the main arguments used in debates on the morality of capital punishment.)
To relate the concept to a more common situation, say that an angry friend refuses to speak to you. If you decide to punish your friend by, equally, not speaking to him, it might make you feel better temporarily. But does it accomplish anything? More likely, it would throw you and your friend into a cycle of revenge.
While searching for commentary on this verse, I found one interpretation that satisfied my question. According to Bava Kamma 83b-84a, this verse is “perhaps the most misunderstood passage in the Torah.” (So apparently I fell into the same trap as many people.) This commentary says that the phrase was never meant literally. Instead, criminals were expected to make amends for their sins monetarily. For example, if a man killed an animal, his own animal would not be killed in restitution; rather, he would give the animal’s owner the amount of money that the dead animal would have brought in from the market. This interpretation consoled me; it seemed like a more reasonable form of justice.
Another twist I personally saw was the advantage of turning the law inside out. An injury for an injury…so why not an act of kindness for an act of kindness? Often I think we forget that justice isn’t only about punishing sinners-it is equally about rewarding those who make the world a better place.
To put the idea of positive justice together with the Bava Kamma interpretation of monetary justice, we arrive at what I felt was a perfect explanation for one of the cornerstones of our organization: SATO. Through conventions and chapter programs, fundraisers and community service events, we attempt to better our world through Tikkun Olam-raising money for tzedakah-and Social Action-making the world a better place by giving underprivileged members of our society the things that they lack and justly deserve. “An eye for an eye” doesn’t have to give us the image of a bloody, blinding battle of revenge. Instead, it is the image of what SATO and USY are all about-doing our part with both our money and our efforts to make the world a more just place.