An Eye For an Eye: A Model for Empathy - Parashat Shoftim

This week’s Torah portion includes a rule that we often shrink back from: lex talionis - the law of retribution. We read in Parashat Shoftim: ‘נֶ֣פֶשׁ בְּנֶ֗פֶשׁ עַ֤יִן בְּעַ֨יִן֙ שֵׁ֣ן בְּשֵׁ֔ן יָ֥ד בְּיָ֖ד רֶ֥גֶל בְּרָֽגֶל’ - ‘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.’ We have already read an almost identical phrase in the Book of Exodus, and again in the Book of Leviticus. You get back what you gave. You get back what you deserve. 

We are not alone - you’ll pardon the pun - in side-eyeing that idea. The Talmud records a long back-and-forth about this law. Do we actually owe an eye for an eye - as is the pshat, the plain reading of that text? Or is the Torah intending to teach us about monetary compensation? That is: ‘the worth of an eye for an eye; the worth of a tooth for a tooth’. The majority opinion of the Talmud is that the Torah must be describing monetary compensation. If I put out your eye, then the courts need to decide how much your eye is worth, and I pay that fine. That way, the victim is aided, and the court does not resort to violence. And when most people teach this text, that’s where they finish it - the majority opinion, the fine. It makes us feel better to think that rabbis don’t trade in eyes. 

However, there is more to that text - a minority opinion that I think helps to explain the point of saying ‘an eye for an eye’ - if we don’t actually mean that another eye must be lost. Rabbi Eliezer, who often plays the part of the stricter position, comes along after all of this arguing and says ‘no; ayin tachat ayin mamash’ - ‘an eye for an eye really means an eye for an eye’. The Talmud goes on to describe that what Rabbi Eliezer really meant is that if I put out your eye, then we do not evaluate the worth of your lost eye - we evaluate the worth of my eye. Why? Because I really do owe you my eye. But because we don’t trade in eyes, instead, I will ransom back my eye from you. 

Let me say that a different way. In scenario one, we have a victim and an assailant, and the courts decide how much the victim’s eye was worth so that the assailant can pay the fine. In scenario two, in Rabbi Eliezer’s scenario, instead, the courts say to the assailant: ‘You owe this man your eye. An eye for an eye. But you can ransom your eye back. So how much is your eye worth to you?’ The victim leaves in scenario two perhaps with the same amount of money. But something very different has occurred in the process of that fine. The assailant has been forced to consider the worth of what he has taken from the victim. How much would you pay to keep your eye in your head? How much would you pay to keep yourself from being in the situation that you created? 

The conclusion, I think, of Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion is that you do owe an eye for an eye. But God forbid we should ever demand that from you. Instead, we create a system in which your responsibility is laid bare before you, in which you are required to face the significance of your actions - and the court does not resort to seeking blood.

This month, we are prompted to engage in teshuvah, in repentance, specifically from an interpersonal perspective. We are asked to consider the ways in which we have damaged relationships, the ways in which we have hurt one another. And we are asked to communicate and to heal. We could see this as a means to an end - if we do these actions, if we have these conversations, we will be in a better place for the High Holiday season. But we can also see it as a model for encouraging empathy. In Elul, we are asked to see our relationships from a different perspective. We are asked to engage with the possibility that we have unwittingly hurt one another. And like Rabbi Eliezer, we can turn this season of repentance from ‘how do I pay back’ to ‘and how do I grow’. We can use this time to understand the world differently, and to ensure that we are not only in a better spiritual place for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - but that we are better equipped for building a better world. 

Shabbat shalom. 


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