The Blood Of A Jewish Man
Sermon for Shabbat Mishpatim
February 9, 2018
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
Towards the end of the wonderful musical Fiddler On The Roof, when the residents of Anatevka are ordered to leave their homes, a villager cries out, “We should defend ourselves! An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” “Very good,” replies Tevya; “That way the whole world will be blind and toothless.”
It’s the wisdom of the ages, attributed to—among others—Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Yet this logical and higher answer to the primal cry for vengeance actually goes back much farther than our own times.
Yes, vengeance is sweet, but like most sweets, it’s empty calories. The satisfaction lasts no more than a minute and is soon followed by a letdown, not to mention a few other emotions—such as shame, guilt and anger.
And yet, we want revenge.
Last Monday, a 29-year-old Jewish man was stabbed to death in Israel by an Arab terrorist. In Gaza and in other Islamist strongholds, Arabs celebrated. In the Jewish city of Ariel, some 24 miles east of Tel Aviv, the man’s wife and four children sit in mourning, surrounded by family members as well as many of the man’s students. He was, after all, despite his youth, a rabbi, a teacher of Torah.
On the social media, I’ve been seeing calls for vengeance. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” seems to be a common denominator to these postings.
And I—I admit—I am torn. My heart goes out to this rabbi, to his family and his students. My heart goes out to my people, the Jewish people, who have seen so much suffering, who have been stabbed, lynched, drowned, burned, gassed and buried alive for the sole reason that they were Jews.
I know about hate. I feel the anger and the urge for vengeance, and I am torn. What good will it do? This has been going on for millennia. Jewish blood is for the taking, wrote Chayim Nachman Bialik, a key Jewish poet of the late 19th and 20th century.
I am torn because I believe in self defense, and because I believe that force must be met with force, that the Jewish People have the right to defend themselves, to assert themselves, to walk with pride, free from fear of violence and hate.
I am torn because a killer is still walking free while his innocent victim’s blood is calling out from the earth.
And I am torn because I know that vengeance is wrong. Hate breeds hate, and killing only brings more killing. So what to do?
If I were born in a different time and a different place, I too would be seeking this killer’s death. If I were of a different culture, born to a different civilization, a different way of thinking, I too would be calling out “Revenge!”
So what stops me? The Torah stops me. The sure knowledge that if everyone thought this way, the entire world would be blind and toothless.
In more primitive times, some 3700 years ago, there was no question to ask. Vengeance was the law. Hammurabi, King of Babylon, spelled it out in no uncertain terms. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. Period. No questions asked. Yes, some allowance was made if the dead man was a slave, versus a free man. Slaves were, after all, property, and as such, their lives were only worth their monetary value. Not so, however, in all other situations. The penalty was the same as the crime.
But then things changed. The People of Israel emerged from Egyptian bondage, and civilization was born.
To be civilized doesn’t just mean that you speak the same language or follow the same laws. To be civilized means to be respectful, not demeaning; to speak courteously, not disparagingly; to be honest, not to cheat. To be civilized means that you are able to learn, to grow, to understand, and—most importantly—to see hope and to forgive.
To be civilized means you don’t take justice into your own hands, but rather entrust it to a chosen body of judges and lawyers, even to your own peers as jury and witness.
To become Israel, the recently freed slaves had to do more than just sing and dance their way out of Egypt. They had to accept the obligations of civilized law.
Hammurabi’s Code was well known throughout the ancient world. It wasn’t the oldest, but it was the most thorough and it formed the basis of subsequent law systems. Moses’s code, however, picks up where Hammurabi Code leaves off.
Yes, this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“laws” or “ordinances,” Exodus 21:1—24:18) does include those infamous words, “A life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth… a bruise for a bruise.” Actually, this portion also contains some other doozies, such as “You shall not suffer a witch to live;” and the law that permits you to sell your daughter into slavery; not to mention the one that allows you to kill your son if he so much as raises his hand to strike you—or (better yet!) disrespects you. For anyone who wants to point to the primitive nature of the Mosaic Law Code, there’s no need to go any further than this portion.
But to stop there would be a gross misunderstanding of this most civilized of all law codes.
For each of these statutes is then followed with an entire paragraph of argument and discussion. To quote these laws literally and out of context is to misinterpret the entire setting and purpose of the portion.
What the Mosaic Code actually succeeds in accomplishing here is to start a discussion. The purpose of quoting the Hammurabi law is merely to establish a baseline. It is as though Moses were saying, “Here is the way things are now. But let’s follow through, people. Is this where we are headed? Is this what it means to be a chosen people?” Not long after, the prophet Isaiah will express it more poetically: “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand; I will keep you and set you… as a light to the nations: to open blind eyes, to bring out… those who sit in darkness from the prison house.” A direct line extends from the law of Moses to the vision of Isaiah. The legal discussion does not end with Torah; it begins with Torah.
It’s true: the state of the “civilized” world in Moses’s time, three and a half millennia ago, was lamentable. It was primitive and cruel. Slavery was a more than a fact of life; it was a way of life. Rape and physical abuse were widespread, as were cheating, stealing and oppression. This portion, Mishpatim, portrays the ancient world through clear glasses, and what we see isn’t pretty. But what it also does is to set humanity on another course, on a new course. Whereas the Hammurabi Code relies on vengeance, Mishpatim calls for justice, not revenge; for compassion, not oppression. Considering oppressing the widow, the orphan or the stranger in your midst? Don’t even think about it! “For if he cries out to me,” God warns, “I will surely hear his cry." There is a higher justice in this world, Mishpatim teaches, and God is the ultimate judge.
And then, the Torah takes its concept of civilization even further, as it chides us and reminds us that our humanity must not be directed only towards people; we must also be compassionate towards animals. Even they deserve a Sabbath, a day of rest. A wounded animal—even if it belongs to your enemy—must not be allowed to suffer injury without remedy. You must help it out. If it is lost, you must return it—even if it means that you knock on your enemy’s door to fulfill your humane obligation. And it is in this portion that the most basic and elementary law of kashrut—the Jewish code of dietary laws—is spelled out: “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Compassion is humanity’s saving grace, its most noble ideal. That is the lesson—the first lesson—that the Jewish People must learn upon being freed from Pharaoh’s cruel tyranny. It’s the start of a new day, the gateway to a new age: The Age of Humanity.
The laws of Mishpatim, as laid out in this portion, are only in their infancy. Over the next centuries and millennia they will be expounded, discussed, modified, annulled, improved and expanded. Each age will bring its interpretation, furthering the discussion, lifting us all to a higher state of being, raising us to the potential embedded within us.
And yet, the dichotomy, the dissonance between what is and what can be, is sometimes heart wrenching. What we see, read and hear about every day is enough to make our blood boil. “Just five minutes,” pleaded the father as he looked with hate at his gymnast daughter’s abuser in the courtroom last week. “An eye for an eye, a life for a life,” calls out the outraged Jew as he sees the blood of the murdered rabbi spilled on the pavement, upon the most sacred soil of the Land of Israel, our land and the land of our ancestors.
But then comes Mishpatim and reminds us that to be civilized means that you restrain your hate, and curb your urge to vengeance. The crime will not go unpunished, but we may not take justice into our own hands. Self-defense is permissible, but vengeance is not.
It’s hard to be a Jew. It’s hard to be civilized in a world of benighted, ignorant people programmed to hate. And as much as we would like to avenge the pain of our people, we will continue to exact a higher sort of justice. We will continue to be better than them; we will strive to reach our highest potential. In an uncivilized world, we will continue to be civilized as we understand and define the term. We will not demand an eye for an eye, because our purpose will continue to be, as it has been for thousands of years, “to open blind eyes,” not to bring about a whole world full of blind and toothless people.
Despite them, in spite of them, we will pursue our covenant and obligation as a people and as a civilization. We are sworn to do so.
But justice will come; of that you can be certain.
© 2018 by Boaz D. Heilman