This commentary was written for the Avodah Jewish Service Corps in 5779/2019.
Mishpatim, our Torah portion for this week, consists of a series of miscelaneous laws covering a wide array of subject matter, everything from the laws of owning slaves (an incredibly important conversation to dig into though that is not our area for this week), the importance of keeping Shabbat and the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot and laws of damages.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Masechet or section of Bava Kama, there is a chapter that is frequently learned called HaChovel, which deals explicitly with one of the subject areas in our Torah portion—what happens if a person injures another. Exodus 21:23-25 spells out the penalty—life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, bruise for bruise, etc. Our rabbis are so disturbed by this proscription that they devote an entire chapter to figuring out how to overturn it, using their own svara, an Aramaic term that means moral intuition or reasoning. It is one of the five sources the rabbis in the Talmud use to derive conclusions on matters of Jewish law. Svara is such a significant source that it has the power to overturn the proscriptions found in the written Torah or Five Books of Moses. In this chapter of Talmud, the rabbis conclude repeatedly that when the Torah talks about an eye for an eye, it is really referring to a monetary payment. Why is this such a significant move?
The Talmud is a lot of things—codifications of conversations on all manner of Jewish legal topics, stories about rabbis and other leaders, unfinished lecture notes and incredible religious and life wisdom. We’ve just read Parashat Yitro, in which the revelation of Torah—Matan Torah—occurs on Har Sinai. The rabbis of the Talmud, knowing that Svara can overturn written Torah in practice, also know that they cannot literally take out an eye for an eye from the written Torah text because the Torah is divine, and every letter has infinite significance. Therefore, they have to use a pretty radical set of tools to ensure that laws such as an eye for an eye are never put into practice as they are written. Instead, their meaning and application get completely subverted. In their own ways, the rabbis use the tools they have at their disposal to enact incredible religious and social evolution. I imagine that there were some voices who found the inclusion of so many of the laws in our Torah portion so disturbing that they would have rather those laws be removed from the Torah entirely. And who can blame them? So too, in our own lives and work, there are so many systemic and structural injustices we encounter every day, and we often despair of ever making significant change. We may not have every tool in our toolbox that we wish, or we may not be positioned to make as sweeping or radical change as we would like. I bless all of us that as we continue on our journeys this year and beyond, may we constantly remind ourselves of the ways in which we can make substantive change, no matter how small. When we feel caught in systems and cycles that serve no one, may we remember that even the smallest actions, those things that feel inconsequential add up and have the power to effect sustained, lasting change.