9 February 2024

Week of 10-16 February 2024

Torah portion: Exodus  21:1-24:18     Haftarah: Isaiah 66 :1-24

Theme:  Revisiting the Law of Retaliation

The Torah portion presents the rules by which Israelites are to live.  It challenges us today to take a hard look  at our standards of conduct. This is especially true on the law of “eye for an eye” or the law retaliation in the face of perceived injustices.  Etz Hayim says that this law is both one of the best known and most  misunderstood in the entire Bible. 

     The law states, “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life,  eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (Exo 21:23-25). The law seems absurb. One can ask, what if an arsonist who burned a house may not have a house to burn down? Would the police kidnap the kidnappers? And who would carry the retributions in the more heinous crimes of rape, sexual assault or attempted murder?

       The Sages have to deduce what the law means. According to Etz Hayim (2001),  “The Sages said it does not mean that one  lost an  eye for injuring another’s eye. . . Intentional maiming is not the same as accidental injury.  Instead, one paid to the injured party the value of that eye in monetary compensation.”  It adds, Maimonides writes:  There never was any Rabbi, from the time of Moses . . . who ruled based on “an eye for an eye.” In all likelihood, “an eye for an eye” is a graphic way of expressing the abstract idea that the punishment should not be too lenient  but should be fit for the crime and the circumstances.

     This is an echo on what’s stated  in most of today’s criminal system which has instead imposed  specified fines and mandatory minimum sentencing to remove the randomness or ridiculousness of retaliation.

     Harrington (2007) says, the law is to affirm personal responsibility for one’s action, the equality of persons before the law and just proportion between crime and punishment. Its goal is to keep revenge within certain boundaries and to avoid the escalation of violence.  

    Jesus tells us  “not to resist an evil doer” and instead to “turn the other check.” Harrington says that the setting of the saying of Jesus is personal relations on a small scale.  Whether it can be used in the social or political realms is a matter of ongoing debate.  In all, Harrington says that Jesus command on non retaliation (Matt 5:38-39a) is a call to opt out of the process of revenge through violence. This is a food for thought for us today especially where wars are happening and we have to grapple  with options for peace with justice.

Bibliography: ETZ Hayim: Torah and Commentary (New York, 2001);  Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew (Michigan, 2007); https://www.myjewishlearning.com/torah-portions/parashat-mishpatim/; https://reformjudaism.org/torah/portion/mishpatim;  https://www.findlaw.com/legalblogs/criminal-defense/is-an-eye-for-an-eye-revenge-legal/

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Do you agree that revenge  on our own is never an option? 2.)Think of an injustice or crime done (in your home, community), what can be a nonviolent option for justice?

This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Minerva Generalao, Philippines, Bat kol Alumna July 2014 and July 2023


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