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
- 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
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
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
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
and share the shards
we palm with enemies
and once where blind
now vision blessed
to see how friend and foe
*Sources from Rav Kook on unitary consciousness:
The Superficial and the Profound
There are two ways of looking at the world: the viewpoint of unity and the viewpoint of separation.
The viewpoint of unity looks at the entire vista of individuals separated from each other as no more than an error of the senses and a lack of illumination. But the truth of reality is simply one great unity. The many, variegated beings are merely particular expressions-different limbs, various colors and hues-of that one, unified uniqueness.
In this viewpoint of unity, you look upon the whole. Then, automatically, an accounting of goodness emerges. Everything together is certainly good-with an ultimate goodness-much better because of the revelation of its evil parts than if those limbs, those means of expression, had been lacking.
To the degree that this unifying recognition grows deeper and stronger, so is its truth revealed in its penetration to the depths, in its rule over life.
All feelings proceed in accordance with the nature of that unifying recognition. Everything is felt with the feeling of goodness.
Then goodness grows stronger-goodness upon goodness. Joy rises above joy; life more glorious upon life.
The more that this unifying view strikes deep roots, the more does it bring actualized goodness into the world: life and peace.
Opposing this supernal viewpoint is the separating viewpoint, which sees a variegated reality as the true vision, and claims the foreignness of all details to each other as a true recognition.
The senses and every superficial awareness aid in this. In accordance with this, life grows progressively more corporeal. The greater its effects, so do darkness and evil increase.
There is no end to the depth of war between these two points of view: the superficial and the profound.
But all the avenues of cause in the world proceed to one point, bringing into actuality the rule of the unified viewpoint in all worlds, subjugating the viewpoint of separation to itself.
The faith in divine unity is the soul, carrying within itself all the treasure of life, all the inner possessions in which the treasure of all the worlds is stored.
Political leaders and all communal leaders are rooted in the foundation of the viewpoint of separation, in the power of illusion that displays reality in its divided state.
The world is not yet fit for a leadership from the viewpoint of unity, in its purity.
The quality of light of the Messiah, the place of the throne of God in the world-"this is his name that he will be called: The Lord-is-our-Righteous-One” (Jeremiah 23:6)- is built upon the foundation of the viewpoint of actual unity, growing so strong that it penetrates all particulars and all causes.
It is necessary that the viewpoint of unity be hidden.
Because of all the unity in existence, because everything is in truth complete goodness from the aspect of its unity, that goodness of constant elevation is not nullified. That constant elevation is marked by the refinement of every particular matter and its elevation.
However, when this illumination of delight is revealed, the pressure and refinement that raise each particular and return every evil to goodness do not grow sufficiently strong.
Therefore, it is the hidden nature of the united light that sends forth the inner uniqueness, the essential nature of the unifying light, to the depths of separation. These are the birth pangs and torments that cause the supernal light to be revealed.
The sparks of holiness scattered in the depths of darkness join together, one by one, because of the descent of the supernal, unified light into the depths of hiddenness of the viewpoint of separation.
This miracle of the revelation of light of the life of unity in the individual and in the world, with the processes of its ethical nature and its deepest longings-which envelop and permeate everything-is alive. It is alive within Israel.
"His people Israel lives and exists forever."
"The name of the Lord, God of the world is called upon him."
"In the light of His countenance does he walk."
"The Lord his God is with him, and the friendship of the king with him."
- Orot Hakodesh II, pp. 456-58
The Inclusive Path of God
A person who is connected with love to the totality of existence, desiring its rectification and goodness, is also connected to the wicked and wrongdoers within it.
This creates the possibility of damaging the holiness of his pure soul, which desires only holiness and true goodness.
Still, the spirit of the tzaddik, who loves all of existence, grows so strongly with love of all creatures, love of humanity, and, in particular, the love of Israel, that nothing repels him-not even the fear that he himself will become spiritually flawed.
At last, he refines himself so much that he connects himself to the essence of goodness of all existence-everything.
In truth, all existence is always good: "Hashem is good to all."
By means of this love, he rises even higher.
And by means of that spiritual elevation, all of existence rises, until even the evil particulars of the entirety become progressively perfected.
They do so by means of the connection of the spirit of the tzaddik-who truly loves everything-with them.
A person whose way of service this is must refine himself a great deal.
He must be quick and careful so that his actions, thoughts and all his feelings are really given over to the good of all existence. This is really what we can understand of the description of the will of God.
Then, his spiritual thought unites with the oneness of existence, and "evil shall not come upon it."
That is why we find a natural sense in many people, people who fear God and learn Torah, of only wanting to connect with the love of good people and with the chosen nation.
In truth, this is a fine path for all those who have not properly refined themselves.
But this is not the path of God that is fit for those whose souls are perfected, for those who have the power to refine themselves and their motives.
Such people are obligated, in addition to the special love for the chosen people, to love all existence and to hope for its complete salvation, for the salvation of all particulars of the all with no division whatsoever.
If such people find in themselves any descent or spiritual eclipse resulting from their connection to the totality of existence because of its degraded parts, they do not turn back from the inclusive path of God that is fit for them.
Instead, they hurry to acquire the proper refinement, so that they will be able to be connected to all of existence, from the aspect of the essence of the goodness of Hashem-the true goodness, which rests in Him.
Then their exalted love will not damage them or cause them to descend.
It will allow them to ascend, and it will give them additional purity, strength and holiness.
Orot Hakodesh III, pp. 319-20