Actions and Consequences: A Drash on Mishpatim


By Cantor Juval Porat

In last week’s Torah portion, we read a vivid and powerful description of one of the most momentous and pivotal moments in the story of our People’s journey out of Egypt – the reception of the 10 commandments.

In this week’s portion we find ourselves discussing what some might interpret as the deeper study of those 10 instructions, with examples provided to illustrate the finer legal points that help to ensure a healthy and thriving society.

The Torah portion Mishpatim, which could be translated as “Laws”, contains a mixture of prescriptions and regulations that touch upon many aspects of life: various cases of theft, altercations and property crimes are discussed, as well as communal and religious conduct.

47 detailed instructions can be found in our parasha. In no particular order we are told not to follow the majority for evil, not to curse our parents, not to pervert justice, not to oppress the stranger, not to have sexual intercourse with an animal, to keep the Sabbath and much more.

Perhaps one of the best known and most controversial instructions – a seemingly cruel one, possibly one that permits an act of revenge – is the prescription of “an eye for an eye.” On the surface it says just that: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise,” yet following these verses we read of the following case:

An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.

Based on the proximity of these verses, many have interpreted the first instruction not to be taken literally. Rather they understand “an eye for an eye” as a concept in which an individual suffers the consequences of their action based on the extent of the injury, and not as a call to amputate or pluck out a person’s limbs and organs, based on the limbs and body parts that person has taken out from another person.

This particular section of Torah, and the commentator’s perspectives on how to read it, is a fine example of how Jews throughout history have attempted to live by the laws of the Torah in ways that promote a culture that is livable and in alignment as much as possible with the “pleasant ways” attributed to the Torah. It reflects what I find to be the responsibility handed to the Jewish People to ensure that the ways of living the Torah are flexible and adaptive ones.

Following this tradition of reclaiming texts, ensuring they resonate with us and with the times in which we read them, I’d like to suggest that those two verses aren’t so much supplemental in their relationship to each other, as they stand in contrast with each other. While they both recognize that our actions are expressions of needs (met or unmet) and intentions, they illustrate how the level of violence or non-violence, damage or enrichment, manifested in our actions depends on our ability to skillfully express and communicate that which arises within us.

The verse “an eye for an eye” by itself can be read as an example of the violence that arises when humans aren’t equipped with the tools to skillfully communicate their needs in ways that promote connection rather than alienation. So one disgruntled individual takes somebody’s eye out, which then causes the other person to take the first person’s eye out as an act of revenge. The only response to the first act is another act of revenge – violence begets more violence.

When you think about areas of conflict in the world or in your life, you might relate to the immense power contained within aggression, pain, the desire to be vengeful or to punish, and how those forces contribute to a culture of “an eye for an eye.” I think this is what the first verse warns us about.

Yet the following verses affirm that there are non-violent strategies for solving a conflict. By introducing the concept of “compensation” we’re urged to look for solutions, in which the wrongdoing can be rectified in ways where both parties are seen, understood and have their needs met.

It seems somewhat counterintuitive to suggest that the one who pulls out somebody else’s tooth has unmet needs that need to be addressed. But if you think about it, while requiring the tooth-puller to release the servant as a compensation for the tooth they’ve pulled out seems just, how can we ensure that the tooth-puller won’t hunt down the servant later on and cause more damage out of anger for having been required to release the servant?

Therapist Marshall Rosenberg (1934-2015), the developer of Nonviolent Communication, a process for supporting partnership and resolving conflict within people, in relationships, and in society, suggests that peace requires something far more difficult than revenge or merely turning the other cheek. It requires empathizing with the fears and unmet needs that provide the impetus for people to attack each other. Being aware of these feelings and needs, people lose their desire to attack back because they can see the human ignorance leading to these attacks; instead, their goal becomes providing the empathic connection and education that will enable them to transcend their violence and engage in cooperative relationships. Maybe an empathic connection is what the tooth-puller needs to voluntarily release the servant, and maybe an empathic connection is what the servant needs to voluntarily leave and not come back for revenge. I’d like to think this is the culture the juxtaposed verses to “an eye for an eye describe.

How can we apply this non-violent approach in our lives?

When the Jewish people receive all the laws in our parasha, they say naaseh v’nishma, or “we will do and we will hear.”

I think that this expression contains the admission of our limitation as human beings and the incredible challenge we’re faced with when confronted with our emotions and our tendency to identify with those emotions to an extent that isn’t always conducive with non-violent action.

And so the Israelites, while recognizing their limitation, commit to a practice of action – like the one prescribed in our parasha – an action that will ultimately lead to more clarity. An action that will ultimately allow the Israelites to hear the meaning or intention longing to be manifested within the action and the ability to act from a place of self-knowledge, rather than lack of awareness. An action that prepares the Israelites to act with care in the world.

Sometimes an intention precedes the action, as the poet of L’cha Dodi suggests: sof ma’aseh bemachshavah techilah (the final outcome has been conceived of at the outset) – and sometimes, when it comes to the work on our characters, we’re asked to take action first before we’re able to fully hear the intention behind it.

May we all be blessed with knowing when to set an intention so that our actions may be in agreement with the values we align ourselves with, as well as knowing when to take action first, trusting that the intention will reveal itself for our benefit and the benefit of those who surround us.