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Why Revenge?  Dvar  Torah VaYechi

13/01/20 12:19:39 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

Playgrounds sometimes can be unfortunate models for how the world functions.  A few weeks ago, I was at our favorite park with my kids and they were having fun playing, running around and chasing each other, and I hear the words that any parent gets very used to.  Tati, he pushed me! (Notice I left out the name of which child it was, to protect the innocent, or maybe to protect the guilty.) When I brought in the kids to explain, of course it turns out, one of them was pushed, because the other one did something first, and would you believe it, this happened because the other one, and this is a direct quote “started it”!  

This familiar but tiring conversation is of course repeated on a regular basis through all of our childhoods, a frustrating, sometimes playful and sometimes hurtful game of action, payback, and revenge.  Except in the rare occasions when someone actually does get seriously hurt, this is all part of growing up and learning how to deal with relationships and how to respond to challenging situations. We hope that as we become adults, we learn better how to respond to these situations when they move from the playground into the realities of the “real world”.


Yet, the unfortunate truth is that revenge clearly has a hold on not only a personal lives, but any look at recent history, and even the news of the past week shows us that revenge is the core cause of war and violence in our world.  The killing of Iranian general Soleimani by a US drone last week, was of course revenge for the killing of US soldiers, even though the US said that it was to prevent an attack being planned by Iran. The Iranians retaliated by sending missiles to attack multiple US military facilities, where thankfully no people were hurt.  Trump said that he would hit back with such strength that he was willing to essentially commit a war crime by attacking with deadly force not only Iranian military sites but cultural sites, tweeting:

WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran &  the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!

As we know as the situation progressed over the course of the week, 

Trump as expected, backed down from his plan, but both Iran and the US had their finger on the red button so to speak, ready to attack at a moments notice, ready to start a war until one side was one top.  And now, while no war has yet started, we are left with the tragic crash of the Ukrainian airliner with 176 people including 57 Canadians, a truly horrifying side affect of this escalating violence. As US Senator Chuck Schumer said, we “shouldn’t shed any tears” for the death of Soleimani, but that doesn’t mean the response has been perfect. Things are not looking good, and all of us rightfully are worried about what will happen next.

In the Torah, of course violence is prevalent, but the prevention of unjust violence is core to the values of the Torah.  God’s covenant with Noah and humankind after the Flood identifies murder as the ultimate crime: “He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God, God created man” (Gen. 9: 6). Unjustified killing seems to call to heaven itself.  God said to Cain after he had murdered Abel, “Your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10).

We are later told that  Cohen who has shed blood is not allowed to bless the people. (Talmud, Brachot 32b).  David is told that he may not build the Temple “because you shed much blood.” I Chronciles 22:8 Death not only defiles the person sho kills, but it also works quickly to make our relationships, and our world unclean.  

Yet, the Torah, as with so much else, is not necessarily entirely against violence, and does allow for revenge from God, and a less physical revenge from people.  The Biblical idea of the goel ha-dam, often translated as ‘blood-avenger.’ describes a person who fixes something broken in the world, or more succinctly rights an imbalance in the world.  The word is more accurately translated as “blood redeemer”. There are many instances of this kind of redemption in the Torah. In the story of Ruth and Noami, Boaz redeems land belonging to Naomi.  And course we know from the familiar Passover story, that God redeems God’s people from bondage in Egypt. A goel ha dam is someone who in a way acts with revenge, but does so not through violence, but through righting a wrong without necessarily hurting another.  Words and thoughtful action, not war and violence.  

Rabbinic texts actually have a definition for the idea of revenge, nekima, and connect it with the more familiar ideas of holding grudges.  The rabbis manage to make the idea one that is both a part of daily life and also the cause for the wars and violence which we fear. 

The Talmud (Yoma 23a) interestingly defines the prohibition of nekima through the very mundane example of the refusal to lend out a tool to someone who had previously refused to do the same. It seems clear that this passage does not mean that the only type of prohibited nekima is refusing to help another with one's property. In the Sifra (Kedoshim 2:4) the same example is used, but it asks a more detailed question, examining when a very important line is crossed. Instead of asking  “What is revenge?” we are asked: “How far does the power of revenge extend?” and even more uncomfortably “What does bearing a grudge do when it becomes something more?” 

Overall, the rabbis thankfully through this and other texts offer a friendly reminder to pay attention to when things can easily get out of hand.  They remind us to watch the small grudges that we might have, in our relationships, and one would assume with our leadership and society issues, and be careful of crossing the line and letting these feelings get out of hand.  

Maimonides, the Rambam describes the personality of someone who is always seeking revenge, describing how this feeling changes us deeply:

Even though it is not punishable by lashes, it is a very bad trait. Instead, a person should be forgoing of his rights as regards all mundane things, for men of understanding consider all these things as vanity and emptiness which are not worth seeking revenge for.

He continues by reminding us that it all starts with a breaking a grudge, and we need to stop these harmful feelings before they get stronger

A person who acts in this manner violates the prohibition against bearing a grudge. One should eradicate the thing from his heart and not bear a grudge. For as long as one nurses a grievance and keeps it in mind, one may come to take vengeance. Therefore, the Torah emphatically warns us not to bear a grudge, so that the impression of the wrong shall be obliterated and no longer remembered. This is a proper quality which permits a stable environment, trade, and commerce to be established among people.

 -(Hilkhot De'ot 7:7) 

The Keli Yakar (Vayikra 19:18) goes one step further. He writes:

Nekima and netira are [the manifestation of] negative character traits, for it is not proper to seek revenge upon any person from among “your countrymen.” Ostensibly, revenge is sought for injury to your body or your possessions, but these things are not so treasured and important to justify taking vengeful action… for physical infractions, God does not want man to take revenge.

Cleary our tradition is sensitive to the very personal nature of revenge, and sees the acts and the feelings connected with it as common, familiar but ultimately very dangerous.  We have to always be examining our feelings, and be attentive to the roles of power and grudges in our interpersonal relationships. And for those in positions of leadership, especially those with their fingers on the buttons of violence, war and killing, the attention to the roots of revenge are even more necessary.

This idea of revenge come up in this week's Torah portion.  

Earlier in the book of Genesis, Jacob responds to an unjust massacre committed by Simon and Levi against the people of Shechem. Soon after they hear that their sister Dinah was raped by the prince of Shechem, the brothers pillage and murder the entire town.  While the rape of Dinah does deserve punishment, we are left to ask if the response, clear collective punishment, was justified.  

After the event in Shechem, Jacob speaks to his sons and talks about the very personal toll that it will have on him:

You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perrizites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.

-Genesis 34:30.

Yet, now on his deathbed as Jacob is blessing, (and cursing) his children, he in his more mature wisdom sees their act as something which was harmful on a greater level,  It killed innocent people and also was a sign of a deeper problems in their souls. When he reflects on the lives of Simon and Levi, he blames them:

Simon and Levi, the brothers—

weapons of outrage their trade. […]

For in their fury they slaughtered men,

At their pleasure they tore down ramparts.

Cursed be their fury so fierce,

And their wrath so remorseless!

-Genesis 49:5-7

Jacob’s first sees the act of revenge as an individual act of two brothers, and now, on his deathbed, he understands that revenge in this way is harmful not onto to him and his family but to society in general.  In his final goodbye to his children he is able to see that while we often let our emotions take hold of us, it is always important to think of the long term visions and outcomes of our actions. A quick revenge, is never quick.

I would hope that in the daily back and forth of revenge, the daily wars and violence that we encounter in our world, we do not have to wait for our deathbeds to come to the realization that something needs to change.  The escalating violence in Iran threatens to grow into an all out war, and even with these few days of calm, it is clear the lingering desire for revenge from leaders without much ability to reflect of offer concern for others, may very soon turn into real and painful action.  Retaliation, revenge, grudges--when will it stop?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes revenge as at its core about how we see relationships:

People often find it difficult to distinguish retribution and revenge, yet they are completely different concepts. Revenge is an I-Thou relationship. You killed a member of my family so I will kill you. It is intrinsically personal. Retribution, by contrast, is impersonal. It is no longer the Montagues against the Capulets but both under the impartial rule of law. Indeed the best definition of the society the Torah seeks to create is nomocracy: the rule of laws, not men.

Retribution is the principled rejection of revenge. It says that we are not free to take the law into our own hands. Passion may not override the due process of the law, for that is a sure route to anarchy and bloodshed. Wrong must be punished, but only after it has been established by a fair trial, and only on behalf, not just of the victim but of society as a whole. It was this principle that drove the work of the late Simon Wiesenthal in bringing Nazi war criminals to trial. He called his biography Justice, not Vengeance. 

I hope we can pray that our leaders put the needs of all people ahead of their own desires for vengeance, the lives of millions of innocent civilians ahead of an insulted ego.  We hope they can be reflective enough to look forward with compassion and clarity to do what is right. Suffering and violence will always be here, but the way to respond is not what some are doing now.  As Martin Luther King reminds us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

This is a reminder that we need now more than ever.

Sat, February 22 2020 27 Shevat 5780