Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.

“It’s not fair!” I heard a child yelling at his playmate on the synagogue playground the other day. “It’s not fair!” And it reminded me how fundamental our innate sense of fairness and ethics truly is.

Even a child knows that the world ought to be fair. Even a child knows that the way one person is treated ought to be the same way that the next person is treated, that the gifts one child receives or the punishment that one child is given ought to be equal to the kind of gifts her brother gets or the kind of punishments his sister got for the same offense.

“Fairness” is a quality that doesn’t have to be taught by any parent or teacher to any child – they all get it automatically. Of course the reality is that “That’s not fair” is probably one of the most often heard phrases of childhood because the world, taken as it comes, is certainly not fair by any stretch of the imagination, and the unfairness of it all is seen as a moral affront to almost every child I have ever met.

When I have conducted parenting seminars in various communities or schools, I inevitably get questions from parents about “the fairness doctrine” in parenting and how they ought to apply it when it comes to rewarding or disciplining their children. I get so many questions about the subject because most parents really want to do the right thing when it comes to their children and they are painfully aware of how impossible it is to “be fair” all the time, especially when their children are so different and unique.

Of course, when it comes to parenting and discipline, my own writing has led me to reject the notion of “punishments” altogether and to embrace the idea of “consequences” as a much more relevant and useful parenting principle.

“Punishments” are what capricious parents inflict upon their children in response to a specific incident or behavior that the parent didn’t like. It may vary from month to month, day to day or even moment to moment depending upon the whim or emotional state of the parents. “Consequences” are what children bring into their own lives as a result of their own actions and behavior. When consequences are clear, consistent and uniformly applied for both positive and negative behaviors, children are empowered to learn the crucial lesson of personal responsibility for what happens in their own lives. Furthermore, they are able to experience that life often does reflect a fundamental fairness when there are consistent consequences to behavior that they can count on.

In this week’s Torah portion we are introduced to the controversial Biblical idea popularly known as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Although it has been derided over the centuries by misinformed readers for its seemingly harsh demands of absolute retribution, it was clearly intended as a humane innovation in human history designed to limit the retribution of one individual or family or clan against another to a clearly defined, limited and fair response.

In the biblical world, the retribution for one person injuring another depended upon who did the harm to whom (a slave to a master, a citizen to a stranger, a poor person to a rich one). Someone in the weaker social category could be killed for causing almost any degree of injury to someone of a higher social class. The biblical authors boldly stood up for equality before the law, fairness among all in society and ultimately for substituting monetary compensation (much like insurance does today) in place of physically harming the guilty party.

Beyond the notion of limiting the damages one could exact upon another to the monetary equivalent of the damage inflicted, the law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was an innovation of ethical law as well. It was rooted in the Jewish notion that all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore must be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their social status, gender, or economic standing in the community.

We are taught that God made each of us unique, and therefore each of us has his or her own unique divine plan to carry out during the course of our lives. That is why this Torah portion also contains the admonition to the priests of the Tabernacle to keep fires burning on the altar day and night as an eternal sign of God’s presence among the people. As the light burns every day and every night, so we are to remember when we rise and when we lie down, and throughout the day in every interaction we have with others, that we are challenged to see the world, and even those who cause us harm, through the eyes of God’s compassion and fairness.

(Check out www.rebreuben.com , www.becomingjewishbook.com and www.interfaithrabbi.com for more commentaries, articles and books by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben).