Vengeance is timeless and intrinsically human, threading its way through classical literature, theater, science, and history. The desire for revenge in the face of injustice is as natural to mankind as the urge to hunt and gather and goes back just as far. Biblically, we see revenge in action when Kayin, dismayed at Hashem’s acceptance of his brother’s offering and rejection of his own, kills his brother Hevel in retaliation.
Psychological scientists have studied this phenomenon in the hopes of identifying the root and the mechanism of exacting revenge, as well as to determine its effects on the human psyche. Some studies were predicated on the idea that revenge is a means of re-establishing universal equilibrium, whereby someone who has been wronged feels better after retaliating because their aggressor has now suffered a similar blow.
Neurologically, scientists have found that when someone is considering taking revenge, the pleasure center of the brain (known as the caudate nucleus) is highly active, for the idea of taking revenge actually does feel rewarding initially. This is perhaps why we think of vengeance as “sweet,” and refer to revenge as “just desserts,” as though retaliation is a delicacy.
For the most part, however, the empirical evidence seems to suggest that when we do, in fact, take revenge and act aggressively toward those who have wronged us, even though we hope and maybe believe it will make us feel better, it actually prolongs our suffering. By enacting revenge, we continue to, in the words of 16th century English Chancellor and philosopher Francis Bacon, “keep our wounds green,” and keep the ghost of the original injustice we’ve suffered alive through our acts of retribution. Though seeking to avenge our pride or honor is a natural human response, it is not always effective - or healthy. Sometimes, to break free of what we have suffered, we must instead separate, detach, and move forward, trusting that “justice” will be served in some form.
As Jews, we recognize that justice is not always served in this world, or in the ways in which we’d typically expect or imagine. A cursory glance at Halacha, however, seems to indicate that Jewish law condones a tit-for-tat approach, such as in the monetary remuneration learned from the pasuk, “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth” (Shemos 21:24). In fact, in this week’s double parsha, we encounter the idea of revenge and retaliation in two distinct sets of commandments: in the Jews’ retaliatory war against Midyan and in relation to the cities of refuge for one who kills someone by accident and seeks asylum from the anticipated bloodlust of his victim’s family. At the same time, we know that it is expressly forbidden to take revenge on one’s fellow, as it says in Parshas Kedoshim, “Lo Sikom Vi’lo sitor,” do not take revenge (Vayikra 19:18).
What, then, is the Torah’s view on revenge?
At the very beginning of Parshas Matos, G-d commands Moshe to exact revenge against the Midianites for what they did to the Jewish people when they brought their women to the Jewish camp to seduce the men and cause them to sin. In His command to Moshe, Hashem says, “Nikom Nikmas Bnei Yisrael,” avenge the vengeance of Bnei Yisrael. But in Moshe’s instructions to the nation, he prevails upon the nation to act “Laseis Nikmas Hashem B’Midyan” in order to avenge God (31:3). Rashi notes that Moshe changes the wording because in reality, when a nation offends, persecutes, or otherwise targets God’s people, they are in effect targeting God.
In fact, the goal of the nations surrounding and dwelling in Canaan at this time was to weaken the Jewish people spiritually, in order to incite God’s anger and get Him to punish them. This antagonism may appear to be directed at the Jewish people, but, in reality, our success and failure is directly linked to God, for we are, as Rav Wolbe explains, God’s emissaries in this world. When we are up, we reflect upon God in a positive manner, and the opposite is also true. As such, Hashem’s directive to wage war against Midyan was not about allowing the Jews to take revenge, but about sending a message to the other nations that God still supported the Jewish people.
We do not experience vengeance for God’s sake in the same immediately satisfying manner as we would tripping the bully who stole our lunch money or spread rumors about us. In fact, this is perhaps why we are slower to react when it comes to protecting or promoting God’s reputation or agenda in the world; to many of us, there is simply less at stake. This comes directly on the heels of the events of Parshas Pinchas, in which Pinchas acts purely for God’s sake, as God says about Pinchas, “Kano es Kinasi BiSocham,” he avenged My [God’s] vengeance in [Klal Yisrael’s] midst. Rather than keeping our wounds green and oozing, as person-to-person revenge tends to do, standing up for God and on behalf of one’s beliefs strengthens those values and the person taking action for them. Rather than feeling good in the moment but causing harm in the long run, social, moral, or religious justice tends to be quite daunting and uncomfortable in the short-term, but tremendously rewarding in the end.
In Parshas Maasei, Hashem tells Moshe to set aside Arei Miklat, cities of refuge, to which accidental murderers can flee to escape the Goalei HaDam, the family members of the murdered who seek retaliation for their loss. The commentaries note that the practice of family members avenging loved ones’ deaths was actually quite common during this time. This is curious, given all that we have said about the negative side effects of retaliation and revenge. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explains that rather than seeking revenge in the classical sense, the Goalei HaDam were not out for the blood of the person guilty of murder bishgagah, by accident, because of the human urge to equalize suffering. Rather, a “Go’al,” a redeemer, is someone who is setting out to right a wrong, to create a learning opportunity for the person whose negligence caused such heinous damage. Because of the threat of the retaliation of an individual’s family members, the murderer must flee to the Ir Miklat, in effect enacting a self-imposed exile as a result of his careless and damaging behavior.
Rabbi Sacks notes that exile is often a form of punishment in the Torah and in Jewish History, and this is partially because it provides an opportunity for self-reflection and rehabilitation. Through the need to escape to a city of refuge, the accidental murderer has a chance to consider his misdeeds. This, then, is the purpose of retribution, not as an outlet for our bruised egos and feelings of indignation, but as a means of increased growth, truth, and reconciliation.
Rav Wolbe notes that a practical application of this can be seen in parenting and in disciplining children and students alike, and this can apply as well in other interpersonal relationships. When a child or student acts in a defiant manner, or embarrasses us in front of others with his or her behavior, we may experience the urge to retaliate - and our punishments may be motivated more by the desire for revenge and the urge to protect our own wounded self-esteem than by the drive to teach and help our loved ones to change their behavior. The same principles hold true when we are wronged by a friend, partner, or family member who is not a child.
As we have discussed previously, one manifestation of the DBT skill known as Opposite Action, acting opposite to our emotion urges, can be learned from Rav Wolbe’s teaching that when someone has wronged us, remaining in a state of connection is hard, but not impossible. To overcome our urge to retaliate and even the score, which will only provide a temporary vindictive pleasure, we must act opposite to those urges, and instead give and act with kindness and generosity toward those who have wrong us. Let us allow others who have erred to take refuge in our benevolence and compassion. Hashem welcomes us back every day with open arms, no matter what we have done. We can do it, too.
Vengeance is only as sweet as its long-term consequences. If we are setting out to avenge God or His people, who are an extension of Him, and we are not motivated only by the human drive to exact suffering in proportion to our own suffering, then perhaps our actions will have positive outcomes. If someone wrongs us or hurts us in our personal lives, we may experience the urge to retaliate, but we must recognize that the true goal of retribution must be to help the offender work toward rehabilitation.
As we enter the three weeks, we reflect on our behavior toward our fellow Jews and strive to improve our interpersonal connection. This week, let us consider whether our actions toward others are motivated by the instant gratification desire for others to suffer as we have, or if we can perhaps overcome this urge and instead find ways to communicate our grievances in a manner than creates space for reflection, growth, and change.