What Is So Odd About Getting Even?

The 2022 Boulder Jewish Festival Film series, highlights several Holocaust related movies. One of the most prominent is “Plan A,” the true story of attempted revenge on the Nazis by some Jewish groups. This article discusses some of the complex issues brought up by this film.

Morah Yehudis Fishman

‘Why did Cain kill his brother? Because he wasn’t Abel.’ This pun has a serious aspect to it: Most jealousy stems from someone wanted to be what one is not, rather than wanting to be what one is! It’s not a very far step from jealousy, as elaborated in the tenth commandment, to fantasies of revenge. It is such an instinctive reaction that both the Torah and so much of literature and film dwells on the topic extensively.

Sensitive taste buds may recoil at bad acts that go unpunished.  Who of you does not remember as a child, when experiencing a perceived injustice, shouting or even just thinking, ‘that’s not fair!?’ One personal example: when I was around eight or nine, I was standing in a line on a hot August day waiting to get a drink at a park fountain, or bubbler, as it was called then. Suddenly a girl jumped up in front of me and pushed me out of my place. Infuriated, I grabbed the girl by her long hair and tried to bite her head! Of course, I’m not proud of my reaction, but it is a visceral memory of the revenge response.

Our voices rise in protest when we see crimes being committed with impunity. Theologically, our souls cry out with the objection of Avraham, when he challenges divine retribution in this week’s parsha, Vayeira:  G-d wants to wipe out the entire city of Sodom for its evil and immoral ways. Avraham protests: “Shall the judge of the entire earth no do justice?”  “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” The present social atmosphere is also charged with questions about the fairness or unfairness of the contemporary justice system and its enforcement. Let’s look at some films that deal with this topic, and see what the Torah has to say.

A classic medieval book written in 1845, which became the source for, can you believe it, twelve movie versions, is “The Count of Monte Cristo,” by Alexander Dumas. That number is perhaps even more versions than Batman, which interestingly is also about revenge! In brief, the count movie is about a young merchant sailor named Edmond, who has been falsely sent to prison by his best friend and a few co-conspirators. Once in prison, he plots his revenge and with the miraculous advice and guidance of an old priest, called, Abbe, spends years getting a classic education as well as learning how to fight. The Abbe with his last breath, gives Edmond a map to a treasure from the island of Monte Cristo. When Edmond escapes, he finds the treasure and becomes one of the richest men around. He is now ready for a carefully planned and targeted reprisal on his former friend and his partners in crime. He indeed gets his revenge, but realizes satisfaction in these cases is not happiness.

A recent Holocaust movie, “PLAN A,” is also about revenge on a much larger scale. It has stirred quite a lot of reactions, discussions and questions- questions themselves that may be more important than any answers. One of the stars is the well-known and popular actor from Shtisel, Michoel Aloni, who is the leader of the British Jewish brigade. This film is a very stark and even dark portrayal of the issue of wholesale retaliation. There were two Jewish groups after the Second World War, who wanted vengeance. One was the aforementioned more moderate group which targeted specific people who they knew were Nazis or their collaborators.

The second group which was much more extreme, wanted to decimate all the post war Germans, in the spirit of ‘An eye for an eye.’ The name of this radical Jewish group was called ‘NAKAM’, which in Hebrew is the root of the word for revenge. The plan was to either poison the water system of Nuremburg, or to coat the bread of a big German bakery with poison. It was led by a charismatic activist and poet, Abba Kovner. For several reasons, neither attempt was successful. After the fact, few would claim these attempts were legally or Jewishly justified, but when a few of the last remaining survivors were interviewed, the intensity of their feelings could not be denied, and their frustration with existing methods of retribution was clearly understandable.

So what is an appropriate Torah response to desire for revenge, both individual and collective? Pretty complex, it turns out.

On one hand, we find the opening phrase of Psalm 94, the song of the day for Wednesday, E-L NEKAMOT Hashem- G-d is a G-d of vengeance! This phrase amplifies the question that is asked by so many: If the Torah forbids taking revenge by deeds or even words, in the explicit Biblical command in Leviticus, ‘Lo Tikom’ then how can vengeance be attributed to G-d, who the sages say, fulfills in some divine way, the laws He gives to his people?

What first may come to mind are the plagues against the Egyptians which can be seen as revenge for enslaving the Jews. But wait a minute, don’t we consider that considered just punishment? In fact, turning the tables around, the sages relate that the Egyptians protested and argued with G-d saying, ‘Didn’t you say in your Torah that the Jews would be enslaved and afflicted in a land that’s not theirs?

The sages have G-d responding to their captors in a few ways. One is, ‘you went beyond any just measure.’ Another has G-d replying: ‘I didn’t say which Egyptian should be a taskmaster, or, for that manner, which country would enslave the Jews!’ This dialogue itself raises many questions such as the issue of free will vs predestination, and personal vs collective responsibility.

Then there are national commands in the Torah of taking revenge against the nations of Midyan and Amalek. These commands, were issued directly by G-d against nations that, at the time, were sworn enemies of the Jewish people. Those battles were meant to prevent the attempted annihilation of Israel, both physically and spiritually. Even then, if there were individuals from those nations that wanted to convert, they were allowed to. In fact, the Talmud tells us that from the descendants of Haman, great Torah teachers arose.

Nowadays, unless our lives are in danger, we do not carry out the above laws. Without a divine directive, and without due process defined by the Torah, we cannot assume the role of judge and executioner, whether individually or collectively. The Torah tells us, ‘Don’t stand by the blood of your fellow,’ which the sages explain means that even when we have an obligation to rescue someone from being attacked, taking the life of the attacker is a last resort. Thus we have an example from when Moshe killed the Egyptian who was beating an Israelite, the Torah’s wording is ‘He (Moshe) turned this way and that.’ The simple meaning is that he looked to see if he was being watched, but the rabbis say that he looked into the future to see if the Egyptian would have any worthy descendants, and only when he saw none, did he kill the persecutor. We do not have this foresight and hence such controversies around capital punishment, and questions about retribution vs restraint. 

 Another example is cited in Tanya, part four which tells the story of when King David was leaving Israel and a man called Shimi was publically cursing him. David told his soldiers to leave Shimi alone, saying to the effect that if G-d didn’t tell him to curse, he wouldn’t be able to. And, similar to events in the Count of Monte Cristo story, there is an additional intense moment in David’s life is when he wanted to kill a man called Naval for not providing food to David’s men, even after they had cared for Naval’s flocks. Naval’s pious wife, Avigayil (who later became one of David’s wives and is counted as one of the holy prophetesses of Israel) stopped David from taking even justified revenge on Naval. She dissuaded him by insisting that if her husband were guilty, G-d would take care of him. Indeed after a short time, Naval died from some mysterious disease.

So, among the general glaring questions on this topic are: When is it right and when is it wrong for someone- an individual or a group to take revenge? On the two ends of the spectrum, the scale toward permission is very limited. On the other hand, if faults or even crimes, are overlooked, when is justice, which is also a supreme value, served?

A unique case of sin and retribution in the Torah is the law of the cities of refuge, from which perhaps modern society could learn some useful ideas about rehabilitation. The Torah recognizes the instinctive yearning for revenge, not just as ‘payback’ for the crime committed, but as an expression of the need to manifest justice in the world. This law states that in an accidental manslaughter case, the accused flees to a city of justice. Still, the court may allow or even appoint a person called the ‘goel ha’dam,’ usually translated as the ‘blood avenger’ but more accurately meaning the ‘redeemer of blood.’ If the one who committed manslaughter left the city of refuge where he fled, the goel hadam who was a relative of the man who was killed, was allowed to exact revenge if the man left the city of refuge before being allowed to leave.

This sentence may harken back to the murder of Abel. G-d said that Cain would have to be a wanderer but would eventually be killed because of killing Abel. But you might say wasn’t that a deliberate act? No according to some sages. No murder had been committed before and so by whatever means Cain used to attack his brother, he had no way of knowing that Abel’s life would be snuffed out. In fact, to support this line of thinking, we see that Cain’s punishment wasn’t immediate death but rather exile, the same consequence meted out to one guilty of manslaughter.

If I had to provide a succinct Torah verdict on these complex issues, I would say the underlying belief is- G-d’s justice is always fair, even if humans don’t see it that way, and conversely that human justice may appear to be fair, but it’s not necessarily so from a higher perspective. It might seem like a leap of faith to view events from that vantage point, but it clarifies a lot. And in between one person’s justice and divine justice, there is a whole court system that may veer toward one or the other pole.

This is why in Temple times, the big Sanhedrin had to be situated on the Temple grounds, so that an aura of divine impartiality and righteousness pervaded the minds and hearts of the earthly court. In addition there are many other regulations that are part of human courts that seem unnecessary from people’s outlooks. For example, in a capital trial, the court has to fast the day of the trial and allow the decision to be ‘slept upon’ till the next day. Also, though the verdict is issued by a majority vote, if the entire court rules ‘guilty’, the defendant is released because there had to be some bias if not even one person could find a reason to dismiss. All this is to mitigate there being a difference between what the heavenly court might conclude and what the ruling of the Sanhedrin might be. And above all, if there is a mistake and the verdict turns out to be wrongly innocent or wrongly guilty, then the trust is that G-d will, make sure that the consequences will ultimately, in MLK’s words,  ‘bend toward justice.’ Meanwhile, we can attempt to pursue the dictum in Pirkei Avot- ‘On three matters the world exists: On Law, on Truth, and on Peace.’ In the Messianic era our lives will be purified in these areas. Meanwhile, our job before that time is revealed, is to continually search and refine ourselves to the point that, as it says in Tanya, we can banish any negative thoughts against others from the core of our being. Then, when revenge is purged from the dictionaries of our hearts, there will be fulfilled the stirring words of the prophet Isaiah, “And justice shall flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

About Morah Yehudis Fishman

I have been teaching Torah and Chassidic writings for over forty years to students of all ages and backgrounds, both on the East Coast and the Midwest. I have been a director of several Jewish organizations in Santa Fe and Colorado. My articles and poetry on a wide variety of Jewish topics have been printed in many publications, and also are available online.

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