2000This week's parasha begins, "And these are the ordinances..." It acts as an instruction manual teaching us how to learn to deal with each other. Last week we read the commandment: "You shall not covet... nor anything that is your neighbor's" (Exodus 20:14). This week we learn just what is meant by "your neighbor's." Mishpatim contains some familiar, and some troubling, phrases. Let's take a look at the most famous verses.
An Eye for an Eye
But if harm should occur, then you are to give life in place of life -- eye in place of eye, tooth in place of tooth, hand in place of hand, foot in place of foot, burnt scar in place of burnt scar, wound in place of wound, bruise in place of bruise.
Your Torah Navigator
1. According to these verses, what is the Jewish view of punishment? Of retribution?
2. Is this fair punishment?
3. Do you agree with this type of punishment?
4. What can you infer about how the Torah says we should get along with each other?
5. What does this verse teach us about equality?
Contrary to what it looks like on the page, Judaism actually teaches that we do not read this verse literally. Instead it tells us about how we should live with one another.
An eye for an eye. This would have been the fitting punishment according to the strict law of measure for measure, but we have received a tradition that he should pay money, because our conjecture may be at fault, and we may unwisely exceed the exact measure in punishing the guilty one….
Our sages have taught us that an "eye for an eye" means monetary compensation (Baba Kama 83b). The reason given in the Talmud is that this kind of punishment would not always be equitable and the Torah teaches us, "You should have one manner of law."
Your Sforno Navigator
1. What does Sforno say the appropriate punishment should be?
2. Do you agree with him?
3. How does this change your view of what Judaism says about how to punish a person for wrongdoing?
4. In your view, Is this interpretation better or worse than the literal interpretation?
5. What does Sforno teach us about equality?
6. What can we infer from Sforno about how we are supposed to get along with each other?
This passage has often been thoroughly misunderstood by people who believe that the Torah is teaching the principle of literal retribution. Instead it teaches about monetary compensation due for injuries.
More importantly, we learn about equality among people. The Torah teaches us to treat injuries to rich and poor, male and female alike. So often in society there seem to be different rules for different people. Torah teaches us to strive always to treat people fairly, treat each other equally, and with respect.
May we one day learn to live by these words.
Prepared by Rabbi Andrea Lerner, Hillel's Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, University of Wisconsin.