Sunday, January 27, 2008

Parshat Mishpatim 1

Looking at this week’s Torah reading, one would think that the Jewish Nation was made up primarily of murderers, thieves, violent criminals and other social miscreants. Why else would the Torah need to spend so much time enumerating all of the different types of crimes and their punishments? Not only the Written Torah, but also the Oral Law contains detailed discussions of criminal offences and legalities. One complete Order of the Mishna, one sixth of the Oral Law, is entitled Nezikin (damages) and deals with the power of the Beis Din (the courts) to punish infringements of the laws.

Yet it is common knowledge that, far from being the violent criminals portrayed through this legislation, the Jews have consistently been seen to be moral, just and honest. The Western World owes Judaism a huge debt for introducing many concepts that now form the basis of our society.

The Talmud (Bava Kama 30a) states that someone who wants to become a Chasid (literally, G-d Fearing), should devote himself to studying the laws of Nezikin. Not only do these criminal laws not make us criminals, but they actually make us more moral. The constant involvement with, and awareness of, the rights of others, makes a person think about his or her own actions, and take exceeding care not to infringe upon those rights.

This can be seen through the famous, but often misunderstood, law of “Ayin Tachas Ayin”, mistranslated as “An eye for an eye”. The word Tachas does not mean “for”, but rather “in place of”. Therefore, the Torah is not telling us that the punishment for injuring another’s sight is to lose one’s own sight; that would certainly not be a replacement for the injured party. In reality, each individual’s eyesight has a different value. A microbiologist who spends all day looking through a microscope would give his sight a certain value, while a musician would give a completely different value to his sight. Taking away a damager’s eyesight, therefore, would not be “in place of” the injury he caused. The Torah must be referring instead, to monetary compensation for damages inflicted to others.

If the Torah is only referring to financial payments, why did it use the language of paying with the damagers physical body? It must be in order to teach us the severity of the crime, and the significance of putting ourselves in the place of others, thus doing our utmost to avoid harming them.

The Torah does not present these laws as compensation for the injured party. We do not have a system of suing people for any perceived wrong. Rather G-d is instructing anyone who is involved in activities which could injure others, to be aware of the dangers involved in his actions. “Ve’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha”, “Love your neighbour just as much as yourself”; as much as one looks out for one’s own rights, so too a person must be concerned to guard the rights of others.

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