Mishpatim 5771

Posted on March 23, 2011

by Alex Krule, 2011 USY Religion/Education Vice President, 5771

How can you follow a Torah portion like Parashat Yitro in which God dictated the famous Ten Commandments? Quite simply, actually: with more commandments.

In this week’s portion, Mishpatim (Hebrew for “laws”), God lists many many more commandments for the Israelites to follow (53 to be exact). With all of those laws, it’s quite easy to get confused with the meaning behind some of them!

Such has happened to one of my favorite quotes in the Torah, found in this portion:

“You shall award a life for a life; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot; a burn for a burn, a would for a wound, a bruise for a bruise” (Shmot 21:23-25).

Now, of course, if any of you have siblings, you would have loved to know this quote when you were little – I know I did. Your sibling nudges you, you nudge them back, your sibling complains that you nudged them to your parents, and you’re blamed for reciprocating the action. At a first read of this text, you might think that you were not in the wrong, as your parents might have told you, admonishing you. After all, many a Jew has read this pasuk and probably thought the same thing. But this is actually one of the biggest misunderstandings of the Torah.

We learn in the Talmud (Bava Kamma 83b-84a) that our rabbis never thought that this verse meant a physical life, tooth, hand, etc for another physical tooth. Rather, they believed that the perpetrator must pay a monetary amount to the victim equal to that of the value that the given body part would have been worth had the victim not been hurt. What the Torah means to say here is that one who hurts another deserves punishment that is equal to their actions – never has a beit din (a Jewish court) mandated the blinding or maiming of a criminal because he blinded or maimed another. If our rabbis had understood this law differently, the whole world would be blind, as Ghandi said.

This portion is filled with plenty of other commandments that dictate certain moral behaviors within the Jewish community (such as being responsible for digging a hazardous hole in the ground), and I encourage you to look for them in shul this shabbat!