Sermon Notes 18/02/12 - Mishpatim

An Eye for an Eye: Literalism and Traditionalism

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

Following the account of the Sinaitic theophany in last week’s parashah, one would have expected the text to describe the construction of the Mishkan, moving from the revelation to the means (the Mishkan) to keep it fresh in the minds of the Israelites.  Instead, the narrative is broken up by the Mishpatim, laws mostly governing interpersonal conduct.  Rav Soloveitchik points out that this interruption conveys an important message – sensitive, honest behaviour lies at the very heart of Jewish life; one cannot even contemplate building the sanctuary without first accepting the Mishpatim.

Rabbi Yishmael notes that ‘one who wishes to become wise should study the financial laws, for there is no greater Torah topic; they like an overflowing spring’. (Mishnah Bava Batra 10:8)  It remains customary for a child’s first tractate to be one dealing with financial responsibility, not ritual law.  These rules hone the intellect and ensure that honesty and care with the resources of others is absorbed by children from an early age.

The most well-known verses in this section describe what is known as lex talionis – the law of retaliation: ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot; a burn for a burn, a bruise for a bruise, a wound for a wound’. (Shemot 21: 24-5)  For centuries, Jews were maltreated on the basis of a literal reading of these words, which assumes that we are revengeful, hateful people, whose law requires us to exact awful punishment from wrongdoers.  Yet the Talmud insists that the text actually refers to compensation for the lost limb (Bava Kama 84a); indeed, this has always been the approach of applied Jewish law.

As expected, Rashi cites the Talmud’s approach.  More startlingly, his grandson, Rashbam, known for his enthusiasm for the plain meaning of the text, also follows this view: in his critical notes to Rashbam, Professor Martin Lokshin observes that ‘Rashbam accepts the traditional reading of the text’.

In the 19th century, the validity of this interpretation was threatened by biblical criticism and a growing rejection of the authenticity of the Oral Tradition.  In response, commentators such as Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Meklenberg (HaKetav VeHaKabbalah) and Rabbi S.R. Hirsch sought to defend the traditional picture.  In what amounts to rather deft interpretative apologetics, each explains that the verse actually refers to compensation – i.e. the text means not ‘an eye for an eye’, but should be translated as ‘compensation for an eye for an eye’.  Meklenberg explains that in context, this is the only credible reading, whereas Hirsch demonstrates that the word תחת – usually translated as ‘for’, actually means ‘compensation for’.

Yet these readings leave a very obvious question – if the Torah means compensation, why does it seem to refer to retaliation?  An unambiguous text would certainly have prevented much misunderstanding and a great deal of persecution.  Is it possible to reconcile the literal meaning of the text with the traditional interpretation?

Seforno, writing around 1500, does just this.  For him, the text describes a theoretical ideal – in a perfect universe, the perpetrator of an injury should personally experience the precise consequences of his or her actions – in this case, the loss of the limb of which the victim has been deprived.  Yet the traditional reading recognises the reality that this cannot, in fact, may not, reflect actual practice, for various practical and ethical reasons.  As such, it is not necessary to distort the plain meaning of the words, which do in fact refer to retaliation; the traditional reading is not a translation of the words, but an interpretation, albeit one that represents the only valid practical application of the Torah’s law.  Indeed, it reflects the will of the divine within the confines of an imperfect world, beautifully harmonising the ‘real’ meaning of the text with an age-old interpretation.

Tomor Chemdoh's Bat Mitzvah

Speech at Seudah Shelishit

GGS 17/12/11

Good Shabbos.  I would like to thank you all for coming to celebrate with me and my family today.  I would also like to thank the Shul for hosting this Simchah and in particular Jacqui Zinkin and Susan Winton for organising the event.

Over the last year, I've been learning a section from Shmuel alpeh with Daddy.  We have focused on perek kaf hey, which is about the story of Avigail, her husband Novol and Dovid HaMelech.  Let me give you a brief outline of the story.

The story starts with the death of Shmuel the prophet.  Here’s an outline of the chapter:

The scene is set when Shmuel dies and Dovid goes to to the Levaya even though King Shaul is trying to kill him and he is at risk, although Novol, a wealthy man and one-time friend of Dovid doesn’t go because it is the season to shear his sheep. When Dovid hears that Novol is shearing his sheep he sends ten attendants to ask them for food.  However, Novol, whose name means ‘repulsive’, is selfish, refuses the request and denies knowing Dovid. When Dovid hears what has happened, he resolves to kill Novol, judging him to be a ‘mored bemalchus’ - someone who has rebelled against the king.  (Dovid has been selected to replace Shaul, which is why Shaul is out to get him). 

When Avigail, Novol’s wife, hears about this, she intervenes to save the day.  Without telling Novol, she took food and stopped Dovid en route. When Avigail sees Dovid she falls on her face before him and prostrates to the ground.  She says “ Let my lord not send his heart against Novol for his name implies - Novol is his name and revolution is his trait.” Dovid then says to Avigail “Blessed is Hashem, God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me. And blessed is your advice, and blessed are you, who have restrained me from coming to bloodshed and avenging myself by my own hand.”

Dovid accepted Avigail’s prophetic understanding of the situation and recognised that he had been wrong about his right to kill Novol.  When Avigail returns home, and Novol has sobered up after a great feast, she tells him what has happened and how she has saved his life, and he is completely stunned.  Ten days later Novol died. When Dovid heard that he had died he called for Avigail to be his wife. Avigail then became Dovid’s wife.

There are two reasons that I am excited by this story.  One is because although I am known as Tomor Chemdoh, or Thomas or just Tom, my name is actually Tomor Chemdoh Avigail - Avigail is the heroine of the story and I wanted to find out who she was, what the name means and what I can learn from it.  The other is something that I found out about when I learned about what she did.

First, the name Avigail.  Interestingly, she is described as ‘of good intellect and beautiful appearance’.

She may well have been beautiful, but more important, she was clever and capable.  This is understood to mean that there is a relationship between her ‘inside’ and her ‘outside’ - she is beautiful both internally and externally and ‘what you see is what you get’. This is what the rabbis call ‘tocho k’baro’ - the way one appears is the way one really is.

The name Avigail is usually translated as ‘my father rejoices’ or ‘my father’s joy’, but some sources explain it differently.  Sometimes ‘av’ means principle, rather than ‘father’, as in the laws of Shabbos or Nezikin.  Here that would mean that Avigail is an example of rejoicing, but what type?  Malbim explains that ‘gilah’ means the celebration of something new or creative.  Avigail made Dovid HaMelech see Novol and even his own life from a new perspective, which is really what her story is all about.  In fact, another meaning of Avigail is Avi – Geulah (redemption) - her mission was to save her husband and Dovid.

These ideas are very important to me, as everyone must contribute something of their own to their family, their community, school, and to the world.  I hope that I can do this and make people happy at the same time!

But it’s something else that Avigail achieved that really spoke to me when I learned about her life.  Her intelligence shines throughout the story, but it’s her courage that is so impressive.  She is willing to risk her life to meet with Dovid HaMelech, a strong and powerful person to save Novol.  She meets him in the mountains, when he is already en route to kill Novol and challenges his decision.  She explains to him that while Novol is not a good person, he must not kill him.  The meforshim explain that Dovid believed Novol to be a mored bemalchus (someone who has rebelled against the king), but Avigail’s approach to him, which is said with nevuah, shows Dovid that he is not entitled to judge Novol this way.  He may be the king in waiting, but he is not yet the king.  Avigail shows him that if he kills Novol, he will do two wrongs - one to unnecessarily end Novol’s life and the other to spoil his chances of actually becoming the king - she saves, as her name suggest, both Dovid and Novol. Avigail shows that she can challenge even powerful people when they are mistaken, but does so politely and successfully.  This is something I would like to emulate: to be able to stand up for things that are right and to be able to challenge even powerful people even when personal risk is involved, but of course always in a polite and respectful way.

Turning now to today’s parashah, which is the day of my actual Bas Mitzvah.

In perek lammud zayin, posuk gimmel it says: “And he loved Yosef from all his sons because he was ‘ben zekunim hu’ for him and he made him a beautiful coat.”

I’ve left the phrase ‘ben zekunim’ untranslated, as that’s what I’m going to talk about. Rashi comments on Ben Zekunim - son of old age - that is, Yosef was the son of Yaakov’s old age.How can this make sense if Yosef had a younger brother Binyomin and Yaakov was even older when Binyomin was born?

Rashi is obviously unhappy with the first answer because of this problem (I found that the Maskil LeDovid says the same thing), so he looks for other meanings of the word Zekunim.

He relies on the Targum who translates it as “a wise son for him.” Rashi explains that this means that Yaakov handed Yosef everything that he learnt from Sheim and Aiver - these were famous people who had run a yeshivah from ancient times to teach people about the one God.  But that means the verse is telling us that he loved him because he gave him all his wisdom, but really it is the other way round. He gave him all his wisdom because he loved him! Therefore Rashi offers a third explanation: Yaakov loved Yosef because he looked like him. Zekunim is being read midrashically as “ziv ikunim - his facial features” i.e Yosef resembled Yaakov.  This means that Yaakov loved Yosef because he saw in him his own character traits, capabilities and challenges.

The normal way to explain the three readings of Rashi is that only one reflects HaShem’s intention, but we don’t know which.  However, my father said, using the interpretative method of the Shem MiShmuel that all three can be correct readings, and they are linked in the following way.

Yaakov loved Yosef because he was born while his father, Yaakov was in his old age.  Because he was born at this stage in Yaakov’s life, he was the child who reflected his father’s character, and because of this, Yaakov chose to pass on his wisdom to Yosef.

This is another important message for me - I need to learn from my family and community how to be a successful Jewish adult, but also, like Yosef, strike out and find my own path in life.

I have had the pleasure of grwoing up in this warm and welcoming community and I want to thank you all very much for providing this for me.  I am very blessed to have grown up in my family and I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Mummy and Daddy for providing me with the wonderful life that I have.  I would also like to thank my brothers and sisters for always being there for me.  One of the reasons I am here today is because I have three amazing grandparents - Grandma, Grandpa and Bubbe - who care for and love me.  I know that my late Zeide would be very proud of me today.

As I become an adult I hope that I can learn from this week’s parashah about how to enter the world successfully as a Jewish adult, and like Avigail, my name’s sake, be willing to fight for what’s right, and bring simchah to my family, to my community and to HKBH.