There are some societies that follow the verses in this week’s Torah portion Mishpatim. Steal a peach from a vendor’s stall and the king cuts off your hand. Look the wrong way at a strange woman – there go your eyes.
Indeed, the Torah cannot be clearer that this is justice. Even the Second Temple interpreter Onkelos confirms this meaning. But the sages insist that G-d does not demand an eye for an eye, rather financial compensation for the cost of a lost or damaged limb.
In the Talmudic tractate of Bava Kama, the sages reject every attempt to prove that the Torah is to be taken literally. A key argument is, “If we accept that a killer is executed why can’t we say that one who destroys another man’s limb forfeits one of his own?” Their conclusion is that we compare a man who injures an ox to one who injures another human: Both are required to pay compensation.
A few verses later, the Torah offers another conundrum. This is the case of an ox who can’t be controlled. The beast attacked people for two straight days and somehow the targets escaped with their life. On the third day, the ox gored another person and killed him. The Torah says the ox as well as its owner are put to death.
And if an ox gores a man or a woman and [that one] dies, the ox shall surely be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, and the owner of the ox is clear. But if it is a [habitually] goring ox since yesterday and the day before yesterday, and its owner had been warned, but he did not guard it, and it puts to death a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and also its owner shall be put to death, [Exodus 21:28-29]
Again, the sages go at it. They insist that the owner of the ox is not directly responsible for the killing by his animal. Unlike the first case of an eye for an eye, Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi, explains the Torah’s decree of death for the owner. Rashi, quoting the Talmud, agrees with the sages that the man is not put to death, but he adds that the owner dies “by the hand of heaven.”
How does that work? Here, Moses Ben Nachman, or the Ramban, weighs in. The Ramban says the ox’s owner got off with murder by paying ransom for the death of the victim. But G-d has the final word because the owner is really guilty. His ox had attacked people on two occasions and was regarded as dangerous. The owner could have slaughtered the ox for meat or at least kept it in a fortified pen. He didn’t.
“Because his [owner] day will come, either in war when he falls and perishes,” the Ramban writes, “G-d will not cleanse him [of his sin]. It comes to teach that he is guilty by the hand of heaven to die at the hands of a killer, not to die naturally.”
More than 30 years ago, Woody Allen produced Crimes and Misdemeanors, a tale of a prominent ophthalmologist who carries on an affair with a disturbed airline stewardess. He won’t leave his wife and his mistress has secrets that can destroy him. In a panic, the doctor runs to his black sheep brother with connections in the underworld. The brother assures his older sibling that the mistress can be taken care of – for a price. The woman is killed; the police have no clues and blame the crime on a vagrant charged with other offenses. The doctor gets off scot-free. Case closed.
More than four months later, the blackshirts responsible for Oct. 7, 2023 remain with their heads held high. No, the politicians and generals did not kill 1,500 people that Shmini Atzeret morning. But like the owner of the ox, they allowed the beasts to walk into the Jewish state and conduct a massacre that would have been the envy of the Cossacks and the Nazis. To top it off, the killers brought more than 200 hostages into the Gaza Strip. And day by day, they are dying.
If this was any other state in the so-called uncivilized Middle East, the groundswell of outrage would have swept the leadership out of office and, at best, into prison. If there was a parliament in Israel like in Kuwait or even Egypt, everything would have stopped until there was accountability. But Israel is not Kuwait, with a National Assembly that actually blocks government projects and forces corrupt ministers to resign.
The result in democratic and liberal Israel is more death along with Orwellian billboards on the streets that order “unity.” “Wait until the war is over,” the regime assures us, “and we will appoint a commission of inquiry.” Anybody remember the Agranat Commission after the Yom Kippur War?
And here is where we need the Torah’s message: Do not despair over the apparent injustice. Do not listen to those who say there is no G-d. He doesn’t forget the blood of innocent people – whether the victim of the ox or the teenagers of Oct. 7. Nobody, particularly leaders, can hide behind the excuse of “I didn’t know” or “Nobody told me.” No leader of a country that claims to be sovereign can say, “Our great friend Uncle Sam will take care of us” – regardless of how many times that lie is repeated on the air waves.
The end of Mishpatim leaves us with hope. But hope requires trust in the Almighty.
There will be no bereaved or barren woman in your land; I will fill the number of your days. I will send My fear before you, and I will confuse all the people among whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. [Exodus 23:27-27]
G-d’s accounting is exact, His protection of His people eternal. The trick is to believe that.