Taking an eye in the place of an eye may be just, but it lacks mercy – Robert Portnoe
The Torah contains certain phrases, stories, and ideas so influential that they transcend religious belief and make their way into everyday parlance. An eye for an eye is certainly such an example.
For the second time the Torah tells us, “Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Shemot 21:24, Devarim 19:21). My mother – my teacher – opened my eyes to the fact that, while the phrase’s two appearances are often translated identically, the Hebrew contains a significant difference. Here in Devarim, the phrase is “eye in eye,” while earlier it is “eye under eye.”
We then set out on trying to understand what ‘under’ could possibly mean. I quickly responded interpreting it as ‘in the place of.’ My mother and teacher, however, said it is like digging a hole.
She said, having my eye poked out is like finding myself stuck in a pit. I may then try to take your eye, but this is much like digging to find a way out – all that will happen is we will go deeper and deeper.
Much like the circle of violence (think honor killings or the current American political climate), justice principled in that which comes by way of “under” only leads to a deeper and more tangled quagmire. This pursuit is devoid of forgiveness and places fairness where restitution should live. Eye under eye is justice without mercy.
There is, however, a way out of the hole – we have to look each other “eye in eye.”
If we want to get out, we have to choose to stop. We must choose to accept that we are in a hole, allow our hearts to feel the darkness of living underground, and begin finding a different way out. If we can express our pain to our fellow and truly listen to what is shared, then we may be able to begin seeing eye in eye. Through this acknowledgment, we can start constructing stairs out of acts of restitution, and set out on the long and arduous journey back to the surface.
The Torah gives us two iterations of ‘eye for eye,’ each with their own accompanying form of justice. Hence our parsha begins by saying, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Devarim 16:20).
I pray that we all take the time to pause and contemplate the type of justice we are pursuing. Is our path characterized by a cycle that repeats itself, ever sinking deeper, or is it active, arduous, and constructive – hoping to one day crawl out of the darkness.