Love Your Enemy? No Way! Treat Him Fairly. Way!

Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1−24:18

D'Var Torah By: Norman M. Cohen


  • But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exodus 21:23–25)
  • When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him. (Exodus 23:4–5)


One of the more popular polemics against Judaism is that our faith is a harsh, cold religion of laws, devoid of love and compassion. The charge is based on New Testament statements (Matthew 5:38–39; 43–44) attributed to Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you,... ‘If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other.’… You have also heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.’”

Actually, Jewish tradition teaches something quite different in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim. In most ancient societies, vengeance ruled, and justice was meted out accordingly. When someone knocked out your eye, you knocked out both of his or her eyes. If someone broke your leg, you would be tempted to cripple him or her in retaliation. Our tradition recognizes the power of human nature and that in most societies human nature, in its worst manifestations, was often permitted to rule.

However, our ancestors, through this lex talionis (law of retribution), placed a limit on what is fair and permissible. At most, an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth was the intention of this biblical expression of justice. Given the biblical constraints that limit the meting out of justice, the anti-Jewish message in Matthew 5:38–39 loses much of its power.

Still, our teachers in the rabbinic period, who were as deeply troubled as Jesus seems to have been, railed against the apparent cruelty of these same biblical laws and passages. In the Talmud they advise us to consider “the value of an eye for an eye and the value of a tooth for a tooth” (Bava Kama 83b). Rashi repeats this interpretation in his commentary on Exodus 21:23–25.

The loss of a person’s sight or limb could certainly result in disastrous financial consequences for that individual. Hence the one who causes such damage is made responsible for compensating the injured person monetarily. Physical attributes such as eyes and limbs are God’s gifts, and if we are to be worthy of remaining in a covenantal relationship with God, then we must accept the responsibility for our relationships with others, which are inseparable from that b’rit or “covenant.”

Furthermore, one might assume that because the “eye for eye” statement is actually cited in the Torah, the instruction to “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” also appears there. But nowhere in the entire Torah can such a decree be found. However, the Torah does address what our attitude toward our enemy should be. In this same portion, Mishpatim, the Torah states, “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must, nevertheless, raise it with him” (Exodus 23:4–5). Just as we are responsible when we damage our neighbor’s eye or arm or tooth, we are also responsible when we cause or are accessories to the performance of that damage.

The Torah tells us to be fair, just, and giving, even to our enemy. It does not tell us to love our enemy, nor does it tell us to hate him or her. The Torah recognizes reality. Loving our friend and neighbor is easy. Loving our enemy is probably impossible, and that is why our Torah does not command such a thing. While recognizing the reality of human nature, our tradition also emphasizes our ability to do battle with the power of the yetzer hara, “evil inclination.” Yes, you may hate your enemy, but do not allow that hatred to consume you, to destroy you, and to lead you to forfeit your opportunity to remain in a covenant with God.

In fact, doing the right thing despite how you feel is one of the ways you can emerge victorious over the yetzer hara. In a place where there are no menschen, “good people,” you be the mensch (to paraphrase Pirkei Avot 2:5). Help your enemy in spite of the fact that you may not want to. As a result, although you may not come to love your enemy, you will come to love a God who cares even about your enemy.


  • One who injures his fellow becomes liable for five items: for depreciation, for pain, for healing, for loss of time, and for degradation. How is it with depreciation? If he put out his fellow’s eye, cut off his arm, or broke his leg, the injured person is considered as if he were a slave, being sold in the marketplace, and a valuation is made as to how much he was worth previously and how much he is worth now. (Talmud, Bava Kama 83b)
  • An eye for an eye… We have learned “an eye for [literally, ‘beneath’] an eye”—that means financial compensation (Talmud, Bava Kama 84c). One can say that this is hinted at in the Torah because it should have written “an eye for an eye” rather than “an eye beneath [tachat] an eye.” This hints to us that the punishment is beneath the eye. The three Hebrew letters for the Hebrew word ayin—“eye”—are ayin, yod, nun. If we take the letters that are directly “beneath” each of these letters, i.e., that follow them in the alphabet, we get the three letters pei, kaf, samech, which, when rearranged, yield the Hebrew word kesef, “money.” (Gaon of Vilna in Torah Gems, volume 2, p. 151)

  1. When Jews read a biblical text, we read it with layers of interpretation from the Talmud, midrash, and other commentaries. One of the reasons we differ from Christians in our understanding of key religious concepts is because although we may be looking at the same text, we are wearing different lenses. How do you think this is true regarding understanding texts? How is it true regarding our perceptions of religious ideas like the Messiah, sin, and redemption or of Jewish biblical characters like Moses?

  2. How do the Jewish and Christian approaches to such issues as justice and vengeance affect people’s attitudes toward fighting terrorism and making peace in light of 9/11 and the tensions in the Middle East?

  3. Those of you who question the method of interchanging letters to get kesef from ayin might consider the classic Stanley Kubrick film 2001. The name of the computer in that film is HAL, which Kubrick derived from IBM, the letters that are immediately “beneath” the letters HAL in the English alphabet. This construct is called t’murah.

Norman M. Cohen is the senior rabbi of Bet Shalom Congregation, Minnetonka, MN.

Reference Materials

Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 566-592; Revised Edition, pp. 511–538
Haftarah, Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25–26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 714-716; Revised Edition, pp. 539–541

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