This week’s parsha follows up on the giving of the Ten Commandments with a host of general ethical rules, almost exclusively dealing with interpersonal relations.  One of the most famous of these precepts is “an eye for an eye” (21:24).  The context is a case in which two men are fighting, and a pregnant woman is injured unintentionally, and miscarries.  If that is the ‘only’ damage done, the text says, a fine will be paid.  However, if any subsequent damage is incurred by the woman, then the penalty shall be “a life for a life, an eye for an eye…” (21:23-24).  While there is a position being taken here on when life begins, I wish to focus on the general ethical precept laid down.  Sforno, along with most commentators, is concerned about the principle.  He quotes the Talmud which (famously) re-frames this principle as always speaking in monetary terms – if I break your arm, I will pay you an ‘arms-worth’ in damages.  While this may allay some of our modern worries, Sforno was not operating with a modern mindset in which such a justice system was abhorrent like it is to many of us.  Instead, he claims that such a system would indeed be the perfectly just way to punish wrongdoing.  However, the Talmud ruled as it did to avoid the likely outcome, given that we are dealing with human fallibility, that we would misjudge in one way or another and inflict more damage than we intended.  In other words, if I punched someone in the face, and the law was that they must punch me in the face as punishment, it stands to reason that there would be a great risk of their inflicting more damage on me than I did on them, due to their anger – not to mention the fact that measuring pain so exactly would be a tall order to begin with.  This understanding of the principle reminds me of a quote by Rousseau, where he says: “In the strict sense of the term, a true democracy has never existed, and never will exist. It is against natural order that the great number should govern and that the few should be governed” (The Social Contract, III Ch. 4).  Like democracy, “an eye for an eye” is an ideal that we can never hope to attain as humans, but we must try our best regardless.  It is a call for always being scrupulously just in your dealings with other people.

An eye for an eye

Does not necessarily

Mean gouging your eye


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