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Eventually I nodded off to sleep on a couch. At one point his wife shyly placed a quilt on me. A bit later, she woke me up and whispered “You’re next,” and I bolted off the couch and grabbed a seat at their bare dining room table.
The Amshinover rebbe took a seat. He was younger than I’d expected, in his 40s with a still-dark beard, and thin like a stick of chewing gum. He leaned forward, his shoulders hunched in his black kapote. There was a tremble about him in his neck and shoulders. I heard it in his voice, too. Didn’t know what to make of that, so I plunged into my question:
The Talmud’s interpretation for “an eye for an eye” — if someone caused another loss of limb, he had to compensate the victim through monetary payment — had never satisfied me. What in the text led the rabbis to money when the verse didn’t mention money at all? It seemed a big leap. Say “shekels for an eye” if that’s what it meant! Really, I was questioning the relationship between the Written Law and the Oral Law — the commentary.
The rebbe shared a brilliant answer of the legendary Vilna Gaon, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I needed proof from the Torah itself that “an eye for an eye” was never meant to be taken literally.
The rebbe rocked gently in his seat and pulled out a verse from Bamidbar, Numbers 35, and another from Leviticus 24:18. “Whoever kills an animal must pay for it — a soul to replace a soul.” “This” — his finger landed on the word “pay” — “proves the Torah understood the eye for an eye verse to be a metaphor.” He spoke in Hebrew. I think he used the word mashal, or parable.
I read it, and the breath went out of me. Clearly, “A soul to replace a soul” meant not death, but financial re-enumeration.
The rebbe brought out more books to illustrate his point, from the Zohar and the Talmud and the Chumash itself, proving that the best commentary on the Torah is the Torah. We studied together. Best chevruta I ever had.
He didn’t look at me, though. Normally I would have felt put off, but when I glanced at him, I saw such goodness concentrated in his eyes that I didn’t feel bad. Strangely, I found it hard to look into his face. Too shiny with truth and goodness. It’s how I imagine Moses’ countenance when he came down from Mount Sinai — so blinding, he had to wear a veil over his face.
Meanwhile, the Hasidic bouncers kept sticking their heads into the dining room, muttering, “Nu, nu….” Apparently I’d been hogging the kabbalists’ time — we’d been studying for nearly half an hour — but the rebbe “latered” them, flicking his wrist. I was moved. Here it was, nearly 2 a.m., but the rebbe kept studying with me as if he had all the time in the world.