And if people fight, and one man strikes his fellow with a stone or with a fist, and he does not die, but becomes bedridden; if he may rise and walk about outside with a staff, then the assailant may be acquitted; he shall pay for the loss of time working, and cause his eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a leg for a leg, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise (Shemot 21:19, 24-25) 

The Talmud (Bava Kamma 84a) is clear that “an eye for an eye” refers not to a tit-for-tat kind of retribution, but to monetary compensation. If one person injures another, the penalty is not for the assailant to suffer the same injury as the victim, but rather that the assailant pay for 1) medical expenses for treating the injury, 2) monetary loss that the victim suffered for the time that they were unable to work, 3) shame, 4) the pain caused, and 5) an evaluation of the worth of the bodily damage.  

What matters here is not that the victim feel vindicated, or that a thirst for revenge may be satisfied, or that the assailant receives what they “deserve,” as none of these things have any practical import to the victim. What matters, pragmatically, is that the victim has suffered injury and loss as a result of that injury. That person needs their injuries healed, and their financial losses recovered. That is the responsibility of the assailant.  

Just as Divine revelation is only relevant in terms of the practical ramifications, i.e., obligation to Torah and mitzvot, so too are the civil and ethical laws only concerned with practical outcomes. Just as bodily assault demands restitution to the victims, thieves are not jailed, becoming unproductive wards of the state and becoming more hardened by the pressures of prison life, but are forced to make restitution to the people from whom they stole.  

There are exceptions. Murder is a capital crime, and is not the only one. But in general, when one person suffers a loss at the hands of another, the Torah demands restitution, not retribution.  

Not all of the laws in Parashat Mishpatim are entirely rational. Some of the laws, especially those that involve not fairness and interpersonal ethics, but serving God, have no rationale. At the end of chapter 22, after a long list of rules demanding ethical and fair treatment of the poor, of debtors, of employees, is a law of kashrut: the prohibition against eating treyfah; not the meat of a non-kosher animal, but the meat of an animal killed by mauling, or by any means other than kosher slaughter. The only reason given for this law is that it is part of us being a holy people.  

Holy living, then, entails a rational and practical system of justice and fairness towards our fellow human being on the one hand, and non-rational rules and prohibitions that govern our devotional acts towards the Eternal. Approaching human beings, whose needs are comprehensible, we must be sensible and logical. Approaching the Divine, we recognize that we have gone outside the realm of the rational and entered the realm of the purely devotional. Holiness encompasses both. 

Shabbat shalom! 

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