“An eye for an eye” is one the most quoted phrases from the bible, often used to justify harsh punishment. In his commentary to Parashat Mishpatim, Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann shows how these words can also teach us about honoring the rights of the vulnerable, and ensuring we work to do good in the world.
By Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann
Recently a shocking case of an attempt to dispossess a Palestinian widow in a creative but especially disgraceful way was brought to my attention. In an article that appeared in Haaretz (February 2) the following was reported: “Israel has declared its intention to take away the compensation given to a Palestinian woman whose Israeli Arab husband was killed in a car accident, claiming that her inheritance belongs to the state by virtue of the Custodian of Absentee Property Law.”
This coming Shabbat we read in the synagogues the Torah reading “Mishpatim” (judgments/laws) that deals in great detail with instructions for creating a model society based on justice and law. Amongst the laws, there is one accompanied by a particularly strong comment. This law deals with the exploitation of widows and orphans and the results of such behavior for the future Israelite society, if such things occur. I believe that this text speaks for itself regarding the above-mentioned case:
20 And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
21 Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.
22 If thou afflict them in any wise–for if they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry—
23 My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless – Exodus, Chapter, 22
Heaven forbid we do such things to others – and to ourselves – and thus transgress against the most basic sense of morality and humanity.
That is what I wrote a few days ago for the RHR Facebook in response to the above-mentioned report from Haaretz. I would like now to briefly expand our understanding of this point
Rashbam  interprets these verses for us as an example of a measure for a measure (“mida keneged Mida“). That is the approach of the Talmudic sages in understanding many Biblical stories in which a person is punished in this world according to their sin in an “appropriate” fashion. (The question of what is appropriate is an open one at this stage) There are many examples of this in the Midrash… For instance: It is said of the exile in Egypt that it had an aspect of punishment for the negative behavior of Sarah and Abraham, our ancestors, with regard to Hagar, the Egyptian. They expelled her, throwing her and her son Ishmael into exile, and in the end their descendents suffer exile in Egypt themselves. As the popular saying goes: “What goes around comes around”!
What we do to others, strangers, or those different or more vulnerable than we are in the end will boomerang back at us with interest – a curse for the coming generations. Just as an evil act brings in its wake negative results beyond the act itself, so too do good acts bring good into the world and reverberate beyond into the world. This is what the rabbis mean when they say: “One sin leads to another ,one good deed (“mitzvah“) leads to another” (Pirkei Avot). “Measure for Measure” works both ways. The underlying principle here is that there is justice in the world, which will in the end prevail (think also of Martin Luther King’s saying about “the arc of justice” in history that bends towards justice). The world is not a place of random events and chaos according to this approach since it has a guiding hand, and a judge beyond it. As it is said: All is recorded in the Heavenly notebook!
This principle of “measure for measure” is presented very clearly in Parashat Mishpatim which we read this week in a case of people fighting and harming a pregnant woman:
22 And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.
23 But if any harm follow, then thou shalt give life for life,
24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25 Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus, Chapter 21)
It is true that the rabbinic sages interpreted these verses differently than its simple meaning in applying them in Jewish law (see; Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama, 83-84). They understood that one should not understand these verses literally but rather as a principle of justice. According to their approach, the limb of the assailant should not be literally harmed, but rather the court should convert the damage into fiscal terms, of the value of the harmed limb.
So, too, in our case we do not necessarily have to understand the saying “Your own wives shall become widows, and your children orphans…” literally but instead as a strong, powerful warning that tells us just how serious it is when the weak in society – such as widows, orphans and foreigners are exploited or abused. A society that allows this or does this kind of thing is cruel and lacking compassion, in the end not only for the weak and vulnerable but also for the ordinary and even for the “stronger” citizens as well. A society without respect for human dignity is not one worth living in, it becomes a society that “eats (destroys) its residents”. So the struggle against such phenomena of cruelty to the weak and vulnerable – the orphan, the widow, the stranger, for instance – is actually a struggle for the good of all in society. Such a struggle is clearly, according to the teaching in Parashat Mishpatim, the will of G-d.
This is also true between nations. And “they that understand will understand”.
Let it be the Divine will that we understand this and change our direction as a society here in the State of Israel, before the narrowness of vision, covetousness and evil towards our fellows who are weaker or needier than we are leads, G-d Forbid, to disaster in the Land which is indeed described as “a Land that eats its inhabitants” but also can be a source of blessings for us and for our surroundings.
 Samuel ben Meir (Troyes, c. 1085 – c. 1158) after his death known as “Rashbam”, a Hebrew acronym for: RAbbi SHmuel Ben Meir, was a leading French Tosafist and grandson of Shlomo Yitzhaki, “Rashi.”
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights and the director of organisation development