Maurice A. Salth | September 25, 2014
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Earlier this year, I received an unexpected phone call. It jarred me from the normalcy of my day and made me question my character.
The call was from a woman asking me to give a reference for a former colleague before my rabbi days; someone I’d once trusted. I’d been his supervisor and had gone out on a limb for him and then we had a falling out: he betrayed my confidence. I can still feel the pain from that time. And now his potential employer was on the phone asking me for a reference. I had the presence of mind to ask her if I could call her back. I put down the phone. I took a deep breath and suddenly I realized I was smiling. I had been given an unusually easy road to get back at him.
I do not think of myself as a vengeful person. Does anyone think of themselves in this way? Prior to this phone call, I would have likely denied even having the capacity for such a raw emotion. But here I was, imagining how I could wreak vengeance on my former colleague—and I was reveling in it.
Have you ever wanted to get back at someone? In preparing for this sermon, I spoke to others who told me that they had felt exactly this way toward family members, friends, workmates, and neighbors. I am so grateful for their honesty.
In his book Evolution of the Self, psychologist Leon Seltzer notes that revenge has mostly to do with expressing rage and spite. It’s a protest, or payback, and its foremost intent is to harm. Some say its purpose is to get even. It’s not about justice but about… retaliating against some wrong done. Many consider revenge a human, primal response to being hurt. This was confirmed by every person I spoke with. Our desire for payback wasn’t something we carefully thought out; it came irrationally from some deep instinctive place.
Experiences of hurt, anger, guilt, loss, and even loneliness, and their aftermath, can derail us from the paths we have set forth for ourselves.
Each New Year, our tradition calls to us to return to our best selves. T’shuvah’s literal translation is return. We’re urged to return to our purest selves, to tap into the goodness with which we began. Renewal requires figuring out what is really working and what is really not. We have to look hard at the past—not wistfully, not philosophically, but nakedly, uncompromisingly; without candor, we will never get back on track.
The hard work of t’shuvah is not always pleasant, but we know it’s crucial. This is after all our life; it’s our precious life.
When I looked back at that phone call, I was shaken by my own response and how this feeling of revenge contradicted my identity. It also made me more alert to the stories of revenge that have been playing out, on a much greater scale, in the world around us.
Last September, the “Bridgegate” scandal began with an email that read, “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Time for some payback.
Earlier this summer in Israel, tragically, three Israeli teenagers were murdered and soon after a young Palestinian was killed in a revenge attack.
In mid-July in the Netherlands and Australia, cries of revenge were heard from grief-stricken families of civilians on the Malaysian flight that was shot down over the Ukraine.
And only a few weeks ago, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo. There were protests seeking justice and other voices wanting revenge.
This has been a sobering year, where vengeance has often taken center stage.
I examined our ancient texts, and discovered that this theme of revenge is no stranger to our Torah. Esau holds a grudge for two decades against his brother Jacob for cheating Esau out of his birthright and tricking him with blunt deception. When Jacob decides he wants to return home and make amends with his brother, Esau assembles an army of four hundred men. Their intent is to slay all of Jacob’s clan, but, unexpectedly, and at the very last moment, they reconcile peacefully. (Gen. 3)
The Book of Kings describes King David on his deathbed with his son, Solomon, at his side. He speaks to Solomon about a man David had once spared. David now wants his son to kill this same man, saying to Solomon in his final words, “You are a man of wisdom; you will know what to do to him. Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood.”
And then there is God. Numerous times throughout the Bible, God is described as vengeful. The portion we will read this Friday night includes Moses speaking on God’s behalf and saying “Vengeance will I wreak on My foes!” (1 Kings 2:1–12) Shabbat Shalom everyone!
There is so much longing for retribution in our Bible that some might posit vengeance as a core Jewish value. We know this couldn’t be further from the truth. What we do know is that the Bible is timeless in describing the human condition, including the desire to seek payback.
Yes, it is difficult to identify a patent Jewish position on vengeance from the Bible, but two thousand years ago, the first rabbis set a new course for us as Jews. Their interpretations and practices shaped the Judaism we live today. These rabbis took a strong stand against acting upon the desire to seek payback. Later, Rabbi Zalman of Liadi concluded that, “one should erase any feelings of revenge from one’s heart.” But how are we to do this when our gut is eager to retaliate?
The rabbis teach first that we must honor our pain. We do not turn the other cheek reflexively: we are human and our Bible’s stories affirm our passions—both loving and vengeful. And yet, the rabbis teach that we are not animals. We have principles and systems that guide us. We have laws. For this reason, just weeks after crossing the Red Sea into freedom, the Torah says Moses sets up a sophisticated court system to help the Israelites manage their conflicts.
Even then, with abundant miracles and God at their side, the Israelites were causing each other a lot of tzuris and they needed mediation. This first justice system was central to keeping their society healthy. It is the same justice system upon which many others were built.
Later, the Torah proclaims “tzedek, tzedek tirdof—Justice, justice must you pursue.” (Deut. 16:20) A noble text, yes, but our rabbis also knew that the Torah contained more troubling words, such as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth… a life for a life.” (Exod. 22:24–25) How did the sages reconcile the two?
They demanded that we prioritize the Torah’s call for justice over the seemingly unambiguous “eye for an eye” text. They did this two millennia before Ghandi remarked that “If we practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, soon the whole world will be toothless and blind.”
The rabbis maintain that the Torah never intended to mandate physical punishment as recompense for personal injury. Instead, perpetrators must pay financial restitution…commensurate with a victim’s injury.” (Shmuel Goldin, Unlocking the Torah) Justice, and not self-destructive revenge, would be meted out in Jewish courts.
Early on in its history, our beloved Israel faced a gut-wrenching question: whether or not to enter into a reparations agreement with West Germany for the atrocities of the Holocaust. Can you imagine the debate within Israel? It was fierce, emotional, and complicated. Civil war was threatened. At the time, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion stated, “My approach is of an independent people. I don’t want to run after a German and spit in his face. I don’t want to run after anybody. I want to sit here and build Israel.” His focus was on justice and the future of his nation. Israel’s Knesset approved the treaty by a 61 to 50 margin. The agreement paved the way for what was once unthinkable: a strong and supportive relationship between the two countries. Germany remains one of Israel’s great allies and for more than six decades it has vigorously legislated against anti-Semitic elements that erupt within its borders.
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years by the apartheid government of South Africa. He and his supporters could have instigated a bloodbath after he was freed. But instead of wreaking havoc on the minority that imprisoned him, Mandela chose to heal and rebuild his country. Institutions such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission worked hard to mend his land after years of profound injustice and pain. Mandela’s leadership continues be heralded for its integration of forgiveness, mercy, and humanity.
I want to be clear that I believe individuals and countries have the right to defend themselves. There is a difference though between self-defense and revenge. In the wake of suffering and loss, Israel and Germany and South Africa chose paths that lead to peace and have ended or minimized cycles of violence. This is the mandate of our people. We need more reconciliation and restraint in our world.
My words this morning are meant primarily for each of us individually. They are meant to be applied to our relationships with our family, friends, and colleagues, and yet I pray our citizenry and our leaders will courageously control ourselves and not succumb to revenge as a motive for political action. Judaism requires this of us.
I know that in the face of national hurt there is pressure and the desire to act ruthlessly. Unending, escalating cycles of violence are not the answer. They destroy us and corrupt our souls. In our hearts we know this. We can and we must find other ways to deal with our grievances. Our world’s future rests in our ability to do so.
Judaism clearly urges us again and again to act in ways that affirm life and heal what’s broken. We cannot do this if we are wrought up in our hurt and our thirst for payback. Our tradition’s wisdom surrounding revenge and other destructive yearnings exists to protect our soul and help us deal with life’s challenges. When we address our obstacles, when we take responsibility and face our own faults, we can get back on track and return to what our lives should be all about.
According to an old Chasidic legend, a Jew had a dream that in the marketplace was a man dressed like a beggar who was, in actuality, the Messiah. The Jew awakened and made his way to the designated place to the man in beggar’s clothes. “Are you the Messiah?” he asked.
“I am” the man answered.
The Jew said, “With so much cruelty, injustice, and callousness in the world and in the lives of people, what are you waiting for?”
To which the Messiah responded, “With so much cruelty, injustice, and callousness in the world and in the lives of people, what are you waiting for?”
It is our task, if we would only grasp it, to return to being beacons of kindness, justice, mercy, and forgiveness to those we know in this world and those we do not. Releasing ourselves from our desire for revenge and other constraints that bind us allows us to best answer this ultimate call.
Our congregant of blessed memory Sheila Rosenblatt volunteered at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women. There was one time when court-appointed advocates asked Sheila to convince a convict named Marina, a mother of a young child, to put up her daughter for adoption. Marina maintained her innocence and vehemently refused to consider giving up her child to another parent. She wanted to reach across the table and lash out at Sheila, who could feel Marina’s fury. Shelia could have reported her behavior; it could have been used against Marina. Instead, Sheila listened to her. She researched Marina’s case and changed her position. She called Marina and told her, “I want to help you go home to your daughter.” Two years later, Marina’s sentence was commuted.
Sheila picked Marina up on the cold February day she was released and drove her directly to her daughter. Marina and Sheila became true friends. More than thirty years later, Marina sat at Sheila’s funeral, with her daughter at her side, to lovingly say goodbye.
A few weeks ago, I met with a group of Religious School parents and one said, “With all that is going on in New York City, I want my child’s soul to be nurtured here at Central.” Yes, we teach the aleph bet to our kids, and we teach and model mercy, and hamishness and how to be a mensch.
Our students learn the Jewish precept that each of them has a pure soul that can be restored and renewed. This is the same pure soul we aim to return to during these days of awe, no matter our age, no matter our hurt.
On Shabbat morning, we recite a modern-day prayer that reminds me of the purity and goodness that can reside within me and each of us. It reads:
Create a pure heart within me; let my soul wake up in Your light.
Open me to Your presence; flood me with Your holy spirit.
Then I will stand and sing out the power of Your forgiveness
And I will teach Your love to the lonely; and the lost will find their way home.
Each of us, even if we are lost, can return home and revive our hearts and souls.
When people who have hurt us extend sincere offers of apology, we can forgive. We who have caused pain can say I’m sorry and ask those we injured for forgiveness. These acts of mercy and kindness restore us and others. This is our calling.
As for my opportunity to get back at that old colleague when I was asked for a reference? After much consideration, I chose not to seek revenge. It was time for me to let go; to move on from the complex series of events from long ago. I felt immediately relieved. I still feel lighter. I am better able to focus on much more important tasks.
In this New Year, may we do the hard work required of us to return to our best selves, let us move through our anger and reject any desire for payback.
Instead may we pursue justice, and practice compassion, forgive and mend what we can repair.
May each of us take full advantage of this beautiful life we have been given.
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