When men quarrel and one strikes his fellow with stone or fist, and he does not die but has to take to his bed; he then gets up and walks outdoors upon his staff, the assailant shall go unpunished, except that he must pay for his idleness and his cure.
Laws like these in the Torah always seem to be easy to understand and interpret. After all, assaults must have consequences, and it stands to reason that if two men willingly fight each other, then the injured party is owed some recompense from his assailant. Simple enough, right?
Well, no. Not simple at all. The underlying law might be straightforward enough. But the language that is used to describe it tells us much more about the origin of this commandment, and how it came to be. In other words, by tracing the words used in the verse, we can learn the “why” of the commandment.
To start with, the word used for “fellow” is the very same word as the one in the commandment, “Love your fellow as yourself.” (This commandment is the central verse in the entire text.) Which tells us that quarreling is itself exactly what we are commanded to avoid, because a physical altercation makes love impossible.
Adding to this, the use of the word “stone” as a weapon (as opposed to, say, “his hands” or a knife or a flint) is equally evocative. The word “stone” in the Torah refers to the building block of a core relationship between G-d and man or between man and his fellow, described more here. For our verse, the use of the word “stone” suggests a weapon that should have been used to build, to love, but is instead used to injure and wound. It is a betrayal of what we should be doing, bludgeoning what should be a foundational relationship.
For all of that, the damage is not irrevocable, the injured person recovers. The word for “recovery” is interesting in itself, because in the Torah the illnesses and ailments from which one recovers are inflicted not by nature but by G-d. No character in the Torah gets a disease other than a spiritual illness that they have inflicted on themselves through their own words or actions (from Avimelech to leprosy). And the recovery from these illnesses is similarly effected through reparative words and actions.
If two people are supposed to love one another, but instead quarrel, how are outsiders supposed to make it better? There is a lesson here as well, because G-d tries doing precisely this:
The LORD saw that Leah was unloved and He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and named him Reuben; for she declared, “It means: ‘The LORD has seen my affliction’; it also means: ‘Now my husband will love me.’” (Gen. 29)
Jacob loves his wives unequally, and Leah is unhappy. G-d tries to make it better, giving Leah children as a consolation prize. But G-d’s actions do not make things better.
Reuven, named for the word play of “G-d seeing my affliction,” and “My husband will love me,” is also a word play for the word “quarrel” (reev). And a quarrel is what everyone gets. Reuven is the pawn in the unhappiness between the sisters, and he spends his days always getting things wrong, making every quarrel worse. (Reuven brings flowers to his mother and creates an incident, he fails to keep the peace between Joseph and his brothers, he fails to appease Jacob over sending Benjamin to Egypt, and most especially he violates his father’s trust by bedding Jacob’s concubine.)
The results are seen in our opening verse and its reference to a bed: Reuven corrupts the foundational relationship he should have had with his father:
While Israel stayed in that land, Reuben went and bedded Bilhah, his father’s concubine;
Leading to Jacob’s curse:
Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer;
For when you mounted your father’s bed,
You brought disgrace—my couch he mounted!
So Reuven, who “used a stone” on his father, cannot be healed, because he had deeply disrespected his father, and did not somehow make reparations. His actions are similar to disobeying G-d and never correcting our actions, for which there is similarly no way to heal or recover from the resulting disease:
But if you do not obey the LORD your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect: …. The LORD will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, boil-scars, and itch, from which you shall never recover.
Instead, it plays out over time. Indeed, as per the opening verse, Reuven owes recompense for the damage he caused. He loses his status as the first-born. His tribe eventually loses because they end up not inheriting land within Israel itself. Reuven pays for his sins.
The quarrel between Rachel and Leah is settled by Rachel getting an extra portion (Ephraim and Menasseh, Joseph’s sons, get “full tribe” status), and the rivalry is eventually made good in full when Judah and Benjamin split Jerusalem, G-d’s home, between them.
All of this goes some distance toward explaining why the original commandment did not assign blame to either party: the quarrel is mutual, and so there is no question of blaming an instigator. Instead, the damages are limited to the physical damage inflicted on the wounded party. The Torah tells us, through the story of Reuven and the sisters, that the best we can hope for is to make things whole, sooner or later.
[an @iwe, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]