William Hamilton

Eye for an eye, Heart for a heart

“If you only give once a month, please think of me next time.” This is how consultant Simon Sinek re-wrote the sign of a homeless person seeking assistance. Donations tripled. Why? According to Sinek, most in need focus on communicating their plight. But when there is a shift from the asker’s needs to the giver’s concerns, then empathic responses can flow forth.

Most givers worry about two things: 1) they can’t give every time, and 2) they wonder if the asker is sincere. Sinek’s revised sign acknowledges both of these concerns. In shifting the focus from oneself to the concerns, needs, and interests of another, fresh avenues of engagement open up.

Let’s consider a similar shift with a biblical law that is often misunderstood – the eye for an eye injunction. This week’s portion of Torah introduces this concept for the first time. When a fight happens between two men and a nearby pregnant woman is harmed causing a miscarriage, then “full compensation must be paid for the loss of an eye, a tooth, a hand, or a foot” (Ex. 21:24). At face value, the notion of inflicting bodily harm that is commensurate with an experienced injury feels very harsh. 

Yet the ancient background behind this law offers a different perspective. Prior to the reform, resolutions between the injurer and the injured was a private matter. It resulted in uneven application. The powerless were vulnerable to exploitation. The Code named for Hammurabi’s reform actually guaranteed that punishment could not exceed the crime. The Torah’s law that initially appears to heap injury upon injury — always implemented with monetary resolution — was created to protect abuse of the weak.

Shifting perspective to a more empathic posture can yield surprising results. Consider the concerns of another and marvel at responses that may flow our way. The kindly heart that reaches out may yet be touched by hearts extending in kind with kindness. 

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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