I had an elementary school tormentor: a mean girl who wielded immense social power and sought to isolate me. After three years of misery, our paths separated in junior high school and her power dissipated. But I would be dishonest if I denied having fantasies of revenge. As the French post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin once remarked, “Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.”
Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago has written, "The primitive sense of the just — remarkably constant from several ancient cultures to modern institutions… starts from the notion that a human life... is a vulnerable thing, a thing that can be invaded, wounded, violated by another's act in many ways. For this penetration, the only remedy that seems appropriate is a counter invasion, equally deliberate, equally grave. And to right the balance truly, the retribution must be exactly, strictly proportional to the original encroachment." ("Equity and Mercy," in Sex and Social Justice)
Human history is sadly riddled with acts of retaliation and retribution, vendettas and vigilante “justice,” from the elementary school playground to the arena of the world stage. The desire for revenge is among the less attractive outgrowths of human ego and pride.
Torah tells us very clearly that acts of vengeance are out:
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18)
Torah also makes it clear that God will avenge Israel:
God will take revenge against Israel’s enemies -- To be My vengeance and recompense, at the time that their foot falters, Yea, their day of disaster is near, and destiny rushes upon them. For the Lord will vindicate His people and take revenge for His servants when He sees that their might is gone, and neither bond nor free is left.” (Deuteronomy 32:35-36)
And so we find,
Do not say, "I'll pay you back for this wrong!" Wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you (Proverbs 20:22; see also 24:29).
The image of God as Cosmic Avenger comes from deep within the human psyche, that place Martha Nussbaum speaks about. It’s not genuine justice, is more about “fairness,” a more primitive notion that is far more reactive than it is thoughtful. God as Cosmic Avenger is a human projection onto God of what people wish they could be and do, and it becomes most dangerous when it serves to justify their acts of vengeance.
This week we read the combined parshiot of Mattot and Mase’ei. In Mattot we find God instructing Moses that the Israelites themselves are to take revenge against the Midianites (who seem to have been conflated into the Moabites held responsible for the incident of idolatry in Baal-pe’or, as recounted at the end of parshat Balak -- Numbers 25:1-9 -- where Moab and Midian appear to be used interchangeably).
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites then you shall be gathered to your kin.” (Numbers 31:1)
How is this possible? Do we find here license to exact revenge against our enemies? After all, God not only calls for vengeance, but orders Moses to pursue it.
One could certainly choose to interpret the text that way, but everything in Jewish tradition argues against such an irresponsible interpretation. Our passage, in which God instructs Moses to mount an army for a war of revenge, makes clear that only God can command such an action. So don’t rush to your inbox looking for that message. It isn’t coming.
Our Sages wrestled with the notion of revenge. They said that the world operates -- which is to say that God runs the world -- by the principle of middah k’neged middah, “measure for measure.” This means, “you reap what you sow,” or as is more commonly said these days, “what goes around comes around.” They were careful to point out that retribution is not to be wrought by human beings; it comes as the result of one’s actions. Here’s an example, and it’s problematic, containing an internal contradiction. It concerns the sotah, the suspected adulterous, who undergoes a degrading ordeal described in Numbers, chapter 5, to publicly vindicate her from her husband’s rash accusation.
According to the measure with which one measures [out one’s actions], it is measured out to him. She [the sotah] adorned herself with sin; the Holy One blessed be God made her repulsive. She exposed herself to sin; the Holy One blessed be God held her up for exposure. She began the sin with the thigh and afterward with the belly; therefore she is punished first in the thigh and afterward in the belly – and the rest of the body does not escape. (Sotah 8b)
The Rabbis want to claim that the ordeal is just and appropriate. But the sotah is most often vindicated, which means that the woman suffers everything described above without having done anything wrong. This is hardly middah k’neged middah (measure for measure).
The measure-for-measure mentality is one of retribution and revenge. It does not come from the best part of us. In 1597, Sir Francis Bacon noted in an essay entitled “On Revenge”: “In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior…” How do we forego revenge? Our Sages, recognizing the intensity of our human desire and inclination for revenge, teach us to reframe our situation and channel our emotions into good. A wonderful example is the story of the great R. Meir who is bent on revenge, and his extraordinarily wise wife, Beruriah, who teaches him to reframe his natural impulse. Beruriah’s teaching depends upon reading a word in Psalm 104 with a different set of vowels: “sinners” becomes “sins.” Here’s the story:
There were once some robbers in the neighborhood of R. Meir who caused him a great deal of trouble. R. Meir accordingly prayed that they should die. His wife Beruriah said to him: How do you justify [that such a prayer should be permitted]? Is it because it is written (Psalm 104:35) Let chatta'im (sins) cease? Is it written chot'im “sinners”? It is written chatta'im “sins”! Further, look at the end of the verse: and let the wicked be no more. Since the sins will cease, there will be no more wicked people! Rather pray for them that they should repent, and there will be no more wicked. He did pray for them, and they repented. (Berakhot 10a)
Sir Francis Bacon would have lauded Beruriah’s teaching, had he studied Talmud. So, too, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, addressed revenge on the societal, rather than personal, level:
… nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time - the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression… If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
When I got to high school, I had a shot at revenge against my elementary school nemesis. Even four years later, it was sorely tempting. Long ago Confucius said, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” Confucius probably had in mind the possibility (or probability) of counter-revenge by an irate family. But we can understand his words figuratively: when we exact revenge against another, a piece of our integrity and decency dies. We’d like to think that revenge is sweet. It rarely is, and comes at too steep a personal cost. I’m glad I decided to forego the opportunity. Many years later, I had the opportunity to sip the nectar of schadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortunes of another), but I found even that wasn’t sweet. I was lucky to have figured out in time that what I imagined would taste like fine wine, would in actuality have tasted like vinegar.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman