This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor, contains a well-known verse allocating punishment on the level of “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” This verse has been mistakenly associated with the brutal image of torn-off limbs, ripped-out eyes and a lot of blood. Luckily, as Jewish people, we do not generally believe that physically harming someone is a proper form of punishment.
But there are many reasons why this particular rule is important. The main one is that if you didn’t have this rule about equal compensation or paying for physical damage, then a cycle of violence would erupt and continue to brew. What I mean by this is that if Person A was walking down the street and mistakenly pushed Person B and broke his finger, then Person B or his family could get mad and maybe, on purpose, break Person A’s arm. Then Person A’s family might break Person B’s legs. This would evolve in a long cycle of escalating violence that would result in an injury to both people instead of one.
This applies to typical teenage life because teenagers don’t always successfully contain their emotions. Let’s start with a group of two kids arguing: They are in line at a lemonade stand. One accidentally cuts in front of the other. So the person who didn’t cut says, “Move, I was in line first.” The other kid then says, “No, I was here first!”
Eventually name calling happens, and then physical contact erupts, and finally, neither kid winds up getting lemonade; but both get physically hurt. If the kids had controlled their emotions, then the situation wouldn’t have spiraled out of control. This is why Parshat Emor applies to adults and teens, to keep small conflicts contained and not let them become bigger than they are.
Jeremy Cohen is a seventh-grade student at Krieger Schechter Day School.
See also, Accepting Communal Responsibility