Lex talionis – Latin for the law of retaliation. We see it in this week’s Torah reading of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. It’s also familiar from good old Hammurabi’s Code; a rather barbaric take on the maintenance of peace & order. As Tevya quips in Fiddler on the Roof, “If everyone lived by ‘an eye an eye’ and ‘a tooth for a tooth, the world would be blind and toothless.”
Well, the Torah sages agreed with Tevya and understand this law not literally but rather explain that it is actually a reference to monetary compensation for physical damages.
So, if were not supposed to take this law literally, why is it even worded in this misleading and potentially dangerous way in the first place? Surely it’s not just its poetic ring.
I want to offer that we read this enigmatic law with the eyes of a mystic. For the basic mystical tenet is that of the radical oneness of all existence. In a state of oneness, the injured and the injurer are in fact one and the same.
In this reading an eye for an eye means that when I take your eye, I am taking my own, for we are inherently one intertwined entity.
From this enlightened vantage point, this otherwise barbaric law of eye for eye is not so much a prescription as it is a description. It does not prescribe what should be done in a case of damage. Rather, it describes what actually metaphysically occurs in the course of an injury.
This metaphysical law of the universe is an elegant expression of the very basic fact of the oneness of all people, both friend or foe.
It is particularly when were talking about our enemies that this unitary view-point shudders forth in its most challenging grandeur. To hurt my enemy is to hurt myself. 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 realities.
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.
According to Kabbalah, our enemies hold fallen slivers of our souls. In fighting us they are trying, albeit 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.
An eye for an thus stands as a testimony to a state of unitary consciousness.
So may it be in our days that our conflicts are unraveled and laid to rest with the knowledge of our essential and overwhelming inter-connectivity and oneness.
This poem is an ode to that ultimate unity…
Eye for Eye
The All is floored each time One falls
So sentence yourself
til spoken right
Lest one hand stabs
the other in spite
In spite of self
and body same
your own cripple
crafts the other’s maim
The convict with conviction calls:
“We are a chain
en-chained to all.
So jury claim your injury
and judge confess culpability!”
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 OWN pain
And lest our world end
let our contrasts unify
with sight restored
and toothy grins
with bruises cured
and wounds on mend
We’ll calm our clans so vengeance clad
and guard each other’s eyes and hands
that we may have
the sight to see
an Age of peace