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Lessons beyond the laws
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Lessons beyond the laws

Mishpatim — Exodus 18:1-20:23

An old canard imagines Judaism as narrow, legalistic, and cruel — witness Shakespeare’s Shylock, anxious to extract a pound of flesh owed him from a poorly considered bet. But Shylock is imaginary, and Judaism is none of the above. Our detractors mistake surface form for deeper meaning. Noxious rules sometimes do remain formally on our Jewish law books, but they are not followed; they serve to provide lessons in theological and ethical meaning.

Take this week’s demand, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The rabbis dismissed its draconian possibilities by explaining that every person’s eyes are different: Who can compare what your eyes mean to you with what my eyes mean to me? Unable to exact theoretical justice, we settle for monetary compensation.

Yet the Torah’s legislation remains in place lest we forget its theoretical lesson: No amount of money can truly compensate for mayhem. The human body is sacred. Its damaged parts are beyond financial recompense.

If bodies are sacred, the ultimate act of human kindness must be to heal a body in pain. And indeed, our sedra mandates doctors “certainly to heal.” The rabbis surprise us, then, by saying we are only “permitted” to heal. Moreover, healing is limited on Shabbat, when we may not even pray for someone we are visiting and must not, for example, grind up medicine, since grinding is a form of work.

All this, however, is hardly the heartless legalism outsiders might suppose. In practice, we may pray and we do. Halacha urges us privately to tell a patient, “Shabbat prohibits petitioning. But healing will come soon”; publicly, we offer unadulterated prayers in synagogue services. And when someone really needs it, we can also grind medicines — when a life is at stake, none of the Sabbath limitations holds.

So we have two examples of theoretical constructs that are narrowly legal but intended as models from which lessons might be drawn, not guides to actual behavior. “An eye for an eye” is a biblical rule that stayed on the books even though it was never followed. Shabbat healing regulations are rabbinic interpretations that remain theoretically in force even though we get around them when necessary. In both cases, insistence on legalistic ideals teaches us lessons beyond the law.

“An eye for an eye” teaches the ultimate sanctity of the human body. What lesson is implicit in the warnings against healing on Shabbat?

We get that from concentration camp victim Primo Levi, who remembers Nazi guards forcing him to watch a man die slowly on the gallows. “To destroy a man is difficult,” Levi observes, “almost as difficult as to create one.” Crippling disease is like the gallows; it slowly destroys what God has made. Healers are, therefore, the antithesis of destroyers, which is to say, creators — like God. Healing, then, is creating, creating life all over again, as God did Adam and Eve.

That the rabbis (and not just Levi, 2,000 years later) thought this way we may deduce from the blessing mandated every morning to celebrate bodies miraculously functioning after a night’s sleep: “Blessed art Thou…who creates human beings,” we say — and then, in perfect parallelism, “Blessed art Thou who heals all flesh.” Clearly, “Healing = Creating.”

Now we understand the theoretical demand to avoid healing on Shabbat. Healing is creating, and on Shabbat, God rested from creation. We see also why, in theory, we are only “allowed” to heal. Creating is God’s work, not ours. Ein darkam shel b’nei adam l’rapot, “It is not essential to humans that they heal,” says the Talmud, ela shenahagu “but it has become second nature.” God heals, as God created in the first place; but God permits us to heal too, for it is second nature for us to act like God.

So we ought to take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but we don’t. We shouldn’t pray for healing on Shabbat, but we do. We are only permitted to heal, but it has become second nature and we now do it instinctively. These theoretical legalisms portray the human body as sacrosanct, illness as a gallows, and healing as a trace of God, left over from creation.

In an era when torture is routinely practiced around the world and health care is debated here at home, these are lessons worth preserving. Bodies that are crippled in pain are the absolute antithesis of everything God intended. Judaism does not allow us to let people twist about in agony. Torture desecrates what God has made. And healing is the ultimate instance of being like God.

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