August 25, 2017 § Leave a comment

Let me tell you a story. It is not my own story, but I will tell it as if it were. I do not know the author, as I heard it on the radio:

Once, some time ago when I was waiting for my train to arrive, I decided to stop in the little shop there at the station and buy a newspaper and a package of sandwich crème cookies.

After handing the cashier some cash, I took my purchases and found a place to sit down. I opened the sandwich crèmes and took out the first cookie, then set them down on the little table next to me and started to read the newspaper.

A few minutes later a man sat down next to me with his own newspaper. But, to my surprise, after unfolding his paper, he reached over and took one of my sandwich crèmes. Just like that! Without asking or seeking permission, he just helped himself.

I was aghast. Not knowing what to say to him, I decided to show him: these are MY cookies. So, looking him straight in the eye, I reached over and very slowly and deliberately took the third cookie out of the package and ate it. Right there in front of him.

What did he do? He looked at me right back and took the fourth cookie from the package! And ate it! Right there in front of me!

So, of course, I took the fifth cookie – and the sixth, just for good measure, so that he couldn’t eat it too. And he just stared at me, like I was the one being rude.

Finally, it was time for his train, so he gathered his paper and left – silently and angrily, without so much as a thank-you for the cookies!

I spent the remaining ten minutes before my train arrived pretending to read the paper, but really having an extended conversation in my head: can you believe the nerve of this guy?! I can imagine my friends nodding in sympathy as I describe the story. Has he no shame?

And then it was time to go, so I gathered up my things, picking up the various sections of the paper – and there, under an unread section of my paper, was my package of sandwich crèmes…with one cookie missing.

What I love about this story is that each party in this little drama was just so convinced that he or she was right: I am the one in the right, and you must be the one in the wrong. Because if we do not agree, and I know I am right, what other conclusion is possible?

As a matter of course, we are only very rarely convinced that we are being anything less than righteous.

This week’s portion, Shoftim, admonishes us to be righteous in multiple ways: For example, “You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

These various instructions are, of course, necessary components of an effective court system. The process must proceed without corruption for justice to be possible.

But the difficulty that we face with these passages – at least, when we read them in the synagogue – is that it is very easy to decide that they do not relate to us. After all, you and I are very rarely called upon to try to create a new court system.

Not often does it happen that a new society is formed, such as that of the Israelites. The drafting of our country’s constitution is one of them. But that is a singular event in American history.

It is rare that a society requires that all of these things be determined de novo. Most of these kinds of changes are evolutionary, growing organically from the existing structure. It is not often ‘in the course of human events’ that we have to state our basic principles.

So we assume that this passage does not apply to us.

But, as my little story this evening illustrates, our natural tendency to automatically assume that we are right does not mean that we are also necessarily righteous. In fact, it could be that very same conviction that we are correct that is leading us astray.

What are we to make of this?

To answer, let us look at a famous passage, the one that appears just after the discussion of what to do with lying witnesses: “Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst; others will hear and be afraid, and such evil things will not again be done in your midst. Nor must you show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

In context, the text is arguing against showing pity for the one who lies, taking an exacting vengeance against him.

I would say that it is possible that the biblical world understood that phrase literally, given what we know about Ancient Near-Eastern culture. But that literal reading is definitely not how the rabbis understood the verse.

The rabbis’ interpretation was that ‘an eye for an eye’ meant ‘the destruction of an eye should be compensated, in an amount that reflects the worth of the use of that eye.’ As they argue: if you take it literally, you run into problems. What if the one who put a man’s eye out only had one eye of his own? Putting out his eye would leave him blind, which is not the equivalent to losing one eye. Yet he still must be punished! So, they reasoned, make him pay for the loss of the eye.

They have a point. When you look at the biblical text in the context of the Ancient Near-Eastern culture, you notice that there is something different about the Israelite approach. In the code of Hammurabi, for example, there is a different punishment for harming a nobleman than for harming a slave. It was a harsher punishment if someone put out a nobleman’s eye than if someone killed a slave. And it was a more lenient punishment if the offender was a nobleman than if he was a slave.

So, in that sense, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ is indeed a step forward. And, sensing that, the rabbis made it even more humane.

Lest we think that the disparities in Hammurabi’s codes are a thing of ancient history, we should keep in mind that such things still do happen. For example, in this country, the prison term for crack cocaine (which is a poor man’s drug) is many, many times greater than for an equivalent amount of cocaine powder (which is a rich man’s drug). The disparity is consistent with the ideals of the laws of Hammurabi, in that the rich are given much better treatment. So, in that case, the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ would actually be an improvement.

It is also relevant that this section also appears alongside the rules for cities of refuge in the case of manslaughter. It would seem that the aim of the Torah is to create distance between the immediate hot-blooded reaction to a great wrong and the community’s formal response to it. Rather than blood vengeance, it is substituting a court system and cities of refuge and measured responses to harm; it is specifying how to make certain that the process unfolds appropriately, without a lynching.

The rabbis, in turn, build upon that foundation by gutting most of the laws calling for capital punishment, substituting other forms of redress. We are to use this text metaphorically as a guide in our daily interactions.

I would like to leave you with one last thought, something to think about as we move toward the High Holidays: That is, in our everyday interactions, it seems to me that we would do well to remember the principle of ‘an eye for an eye.’

That is to say, we should seek to avoid overreacting to a small slight; to avoid holding a large grudge for a small mistake; to avoid punishing those that we love for the little things that go wrong in the course of the day. Don’t get unreasonably angry over small things. We should seek to create some distance between our immediate hot-blooded reaction and our ultimate response.

The best way to do it is to use ‘I feel…’ statements. Specifically, when you have been wronged or slighted or things have gone badly, tell those around you how their actions have affected you in a direct way: when you do [X], I feel [Y]. It is much more effective than accusations like ‘you never listen to me…’ or ‘you are always so selfish…’ or the like.

In the case of the cookies, the problem was one of escalation: instead of stopping the action to find out why that person was acting in such a manner, a series of assumptions were made. And it does not take a great leap to imagine that things could have become much worse.

Rather, imagine what would have happened if the speaker had said, ‘sir, when you reach in and take a cookie from this package, I feel like you don’t respect the fact that I paid for it and intend to eat it myself.’ What would he have said?

Our tradition advocates a metaphorical reading of an eye for an eye: a small reaction for a small slight. And for the really big offenses, create cities of refuge and a court system: create a break between the reaction and the response, seek out witnesses, and find an impartial judge.

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