Mishpatim: “An Eye for an Eye” from a Mystical Perspective

This week we read parshat Mishpatim, the parsha of “Laws”. Amongst the plethora of laws there inscribed is the well-known injunction of ‘ayin tachat ayin – an eye for an eye’. It states that if there is an injury, the penalty should be an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, wound for wound. The sages agree that the implications of such a law are barbaric and greatly at odds with the moral endeavor of Torah. In the movie The Fiddler on the Roof Tevya sums up this Jewish sensibility when he quips, “If everyone lived by ‘an eye an eye’ and ‘a tooth for a tooth, the world would be blind and toothless.” Indeed, according to halacha (Baba Kamma, 84a) an ‘eye for an eye’ comes to be understood to refer to monetary compensation for physical damages.

And yet the glaring question stands, if this legality was not meant to be taken literally, then why is it worded in such a potentially misleading manner? Commentators offer a rich round of rationals, each with their own beauty and merit. I would like to offer an additional layering of explanation. An explanation based on the mystical belief in the radical oneness of all existence. For, from the mystical perspective of ultimate unity, the injured and the injuror are in fact one and the same. When I take your eye, I am taking my own, for we are inherently intertwined. From this enlightened vantage point, the notion of ‘an eye for an eye’ is less of a prescription than it is a description. It does not so much prescribe what should be done in a case of damage, as it describes what actually metaphysically occurs in the course of an injury.

Thus, ‘an eye for eye’ can be read not as a civil law of an ancient society, but as a metaphysical law of the universe. It’s an elegant expression of the very basic fact of the oneness of all people, whether friend or foe. And of course in the case in Mishpatim we are clearly dealing with foes. Most particularly when were talking about our enemies does this unitary view-point shudder forth in its most challenging grandeur. When we are able to apprehend the truth of oneness even and especially with our foes, then we are privy to the highest and most subtle of mystical truths.

In her invaluable book, “You Are What You Hate”, Sarah Yehudit Schneider weaves together Hasidic and Kabbalistic sources which offer a vision of a spiritually productive approach to enemies, a vision based on the notion of ultimate unity. She writes that our enemies hold fallen slivers of our souls. In fighting us they are trying, albiet in a deluded way, to connect back to their root, which really is within us…We cannot complete our life mission until we have collected those scattered pieces of ourselves which are embedded within our enemy. An essential step in the collection of these scattered shards is the awareness of our enmeshment with the very ones who would do us wrong. Our own redemption comes when we recognize the metaphysical fact of unity even with our enemies.

The injunction here in parshat Mishpatim thus stands as a testimony to a state of unitary consciousness. And from that apex of interconnection flows ultimate compassion and the sanctification of life itself. As it says in Leviticus (19:18), “Love your friend as yourself: I am Hashem.” The Hebrew word for friend, rayech, paradoxically shares the same root as rah, the word for evil. We could thus reread this pivotal line as, “Love your evil like yourself”. What’s more, the phrase that follows, “I am Hashem” takes on new meaning. For when we are able to love another, particularly an enemy, as ourself, then we meet and access the deepest knowing of Godliness. So may it be in our days that our conflicts are unraveled and laid to rest with the knowledge of our essential and overwhelming interconnectivity and oneness.

The poem below elaborates upon this idea of the interconnection between the injured and the injuring. It is a statement of mystical unitedness.

Eye for Eye

Read crime-in-all
…not criminal
- ours to contain
- ours to dissolve

Let’s sentence self
til spoken right

Lest one hand stab
the other in spite

In spite of self
and body same
my cripple
crafts the other’s maim

The convict with conviction calls:
“We are a chain
en-chained to all.
And I myself will not be free
til jury claims its injury.”

“And I’ll not give a guilty plea
Til judge confess
his Culpability”

An “eye for eye”
and “tooth for tooth”
encodes this law
of vastest truth

that we are all
but one and same
to injure other
inflicts our pain

And lest our world end
toothless, blind
let disparate sparks unify

and only then,
enrobed as One
will we behold
the clinching bond

with sight restored
and toothy grins
with bruises cured
and wounds on mend

we’ll calm our clans
so vengence clad
and guard eachother’s eyes and hands

that we may have the sight to see
an age of peace
sans injury

and share the shards
held in-between
these hands
we palm with enemies

and once where blind
now vision blessed
to see how friend and foe

tags: Torah Commentary   
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