More on these possibilities in a moment. I want to turn to the brutal and unthinkable murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir. It is generally presumed that it was an act of revenge for the killings of Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel, and Gilad Shaar. Revenge seems to be an inborn human trait, part of our very make-up. William Makepeace Thackeray put it most succinctly when he said, “Revenge may be wicked, but it’s natural” (Vanity Fair). The impetus to retaliate—arising from anger, shame, and humiliation, which are all sadly inevitable elements of life—is fierce and difficult to suppress. Is there anyone who has not at some time fantasized of revenge?
Parshat Matot is about raw and brutal revenge in the guise of holiness. It is one thing to recognize our passion for revenge, but quite another to claim it is God’s bidding. That is precisely what we find in Parshat Matot:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.” (Numbers 31:1-2)
The very last public “service” of Moses, himself the model of humility, devotion, and courage, will be to launch a bloody campaign against a notorious enemy.
Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the Lord’s vengeance on Midian. You shall dispatch on the campaign a thousand from every one of the tribes of Israel. So a thousand from each tribe were furnished from the divisions of Israel, twelve thousand picked for the campaign. (Numbers 31:3-5)
To make matters worse, Pinchas, the fanatical vigilante we encountered in the past two parshiot, is to serve as the priest of the military campaign, equipped with the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding the blasts (Numbers 31:6), signifying that Israel fights not only with God’s imprimatur, but at God’s behest.
Torah records that the Israelites slew every male, including the kings of Midian and the prophet Balaam. The women and children, along with animals and property, were seized as booty. The Midianite towns were torched. And when all that was done, the spoils of war were brought to Moses and all Israel awaiting them in the encampment on the steppes of Moab. Moses becomes inflamed with anger because the women have been spared. He reminds everyone that it was Midianite women who seduced Israelite men into idolatry at Pe’or, and orders them to kill every woman, as well as all the male children, and spare only virginal girls.
It is a shocking story. Were it actual history, it would be all the more horrifying.
How often in history have individuals and nations sought revenge against their enemies and claimed that they were fulfilling God’s will? Yet Leviticus 19:18 is very clear: You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord. We should be careful not to dismiss this mitzvah as applying only in the realm of smaller grievances, the type we have with our neighbors over the quotidian of life. The Talmud offers the example of two neighbors: Reuven refuses to lend Shimon a saw, so the next day Shimon refuses to lend Reuven an axe. Paltry stuff. We’ve all been subjected to far worse. It is when we face the “big stuff” of life that this commandment reveals its wisdom and moral value. In fact, the mitzvah to not seek revenge is a vaulted a high moral standard to aspire to. The Rambam (Moses Maimonides) wrote:
Whoever takes revenge against his fellow violates a negative commandment, as is written, “Do not take revenge or bear a grudge…” Even though he does not receive lashings, it is a very evil trait; a person should not take to heart anything in the world, for those who understand know that all is vanity and worthless, and not worthy of revenge. (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot 7:7)
Many have sought to defend the story of revenge in Parshat Matot by citing Deuteronomy 32:35, Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, and to point out that God commands the Israelites to avenge themselves against the Midianites. To those who wish to make this claim, I would assert that there is no one qualified to affirm that God has again commanded vengeance, and there are no longer any Midianites. Midrash B’midbar Rabbah 22:2 claims that Moses knew that he would die as soon as he had completed the task; therefore acting immediately is to be viewed as meritorious. This amounts to a glorification of Moses’ zeal for the butchery.
And if all this isn’t enough, is it mere coincidence that the people Moses orders Israel to avenge themselves against is none other than the family in which he married? His wife, Tzipporah, is the daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian. The closer we are to people, the deeper we are wounded when they hurt us; consequently, the greater the desire for revenge. Familiarity breeds contempt and proximity breeds resentment—on steroids.
What remains for us is to live up to the standard of Leviticus 19:18 as Rambam taught—as difficult as that is. Talmud teaches:
Those who are insulted but do not insult back, hear themselves slandered but don’t respond, act with love and rejoice in tribulations — of these Scripture states that, Those who love [God] are like the sun rising with all its might (Leviticus 6:4). (B. Yoma 23a)
All this swirls through my mind as I painfully contemplate the torture and murder of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir and the brutal beating of his 15-year-old cousin, Tariq Khdeir. I know of no one who doubts that both were acts of revenge, the first for the murder of three Israeli teens several weeks ago, and the second for Arab protests against the murder of Muhammad.
All last week, Israel was engaged in military action in Gaza. As I write this the United Nations has reported that 177 Palestinians have been killed in Operation Protective Edge in the past week, many of them children, and many more have been injured. More than one voice has shouted to the hilltops that Operation Protective Edge is an act of revenge. We should not be too quick to label it as such because the evidence does not bear this out. To whit:
• Israel has gone to historically unprecedented lengths to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza. Hamas targets have been warned by dropped from the air to vacate houses targeted for destruction. Israel’s goal is to cripple the Hamas infrastructure, not harm the people of Gaza.
• Hamas operatives have embedded themselves deep within the civilian population, increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties because this plays well in the media and the arena of world opinion. They have long employed the tactic of using civilians as “human shields.” They are also ensconced in a labyrinth of tunnels below ground built to infiltrate Israel and attack Israeli civilians.
• Hamas rockets are aimed at Israeli civilian targets. Israeli rockets are aimed at removing the means to launch rockets into Israel in order to protect her civilian population, as she ought. Every country has the right and responsibility to protect its citizens.
• Israel worked out a cease-fire arrangement with the aid of Egypt. Israel has unilaterally initiated a cease-fire. Hamas summarily rejected it, firing 84 rockets toward Israel within a few hours.
• Iron Dome, Israel’s air defense system that intercepts and destroys short-range rockets and artillery shells whose trajectories would bring them to populated areas, is working well. Thank goodness. And thank you to the United States for contributing to its development. As Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren has pointed out, Iron Dome has saved countless lives—both Israeli and Palestinian—and staved off war on numerous occasions. How so? Israel’s ability to protect its civilian population has bought time to pursue diplomatically-arranged cease-fires, thereby decreasing incursions into Gaza, which would surely have resulted in Palestinian casualties.
• At this time, many in Israel believe that the only long-term solution is to eject Hamas from Gaza, given Hamas’ terrorist activities and its stated goals (articulated in the Hamas Charter) to obliterate Israel (preamble), establish a fundamentalist Islamist state in Palestine (Articles 11 and 13) through Jihad (Articles 15 and 33), reject a negotiated peace settlement (Article 13), and kill every Jew everywhere. Concerning the last point, the Hamas Charter reads: “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: 'O Moslem, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.’” (Article 7) And if that isn’t enough to make your blood run cold, the Charter also trumpets the notorious anti-Semitic canard, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” forged in Czarist Russia, that purports to describe a Jewish plan for worldwide domination.
I mention these facets of the current situation to make the point that Israel’s actions in Gaza, however much we might wish they hadn’t happened and Israel had not considered them necessary, are not acts of revenge, except in this sense: “The best revenge,” wrote Marcus Aurelius, “is not to be like your enemy” (Meditations). The killing of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali was an intentional act of provocation. Israel’s sorties over Gaza are to protect its population from the rain of Hamas rockets showering Israel, from the south nearly to Haifa.
Only the death of Muhammad and, most likely, the beating of his cousin Tariq Abu Khdeir, were acts of revenge. They were both reprehensible and shameful. For the record: Upon hearing of Muhammed’s death, and then Tariq’s treatment at the hands of Israeli police, Israeli society went into convulsions of moral revulsion—that wasn’t covered by the mainstream news media. Those responsible for Muhammad’s death were rounded up within 24 hours; they will be charged, tried, and punished. The Israeli police officer who beat Tariq has been suspended and could be indicted. In contrast, the murderers of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali, however, are still at large; the Palestinian Authority has made no effort to identify them. Palestinians on the West Bank gave their children candy to publicly celebrate the murders.
שַׁאֲלוּ, שְׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָם Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman