VA'ETHANNAN - SHABBAT NAHAMU
July 20, 2002 - 5762
Prepared by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, PhD
Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Annual Cycle: Deut. 3:23-7:11; Hertz, p. 755; Etz Hayim, p. 1005
Triennial Cycle I: Deut 3:23-5:18; Hertz, p. 755; Etz Hayim, p. 1005
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26; Hertz, p. 776; Etz Hayim, p. 1032
This Shabbat’s Torah Portion Summary
(3:23-29) Moses pleads with God to enter the Promised Land.
(4:1-40) An admonition to follow God's laws to preserve the covenant. If Israel breaks God's law and worships idols, they will be scattered among the nations. However, God will not absolutely abandon them; when they repent, they will return.
(4:41-49) Moses designates three cities of refuge east of the Jordan.
(5:1-30) Historical review of the revelation at Sinai and restatement of the Ten Commandments.
(6:1-3) A warning regarding the observance of the mitzvot.
(6:4-9) The Shema.
(6:10-25) An exhortation to keep the words of the Torah coupled with a reminder of all the good things God has done for his people.
(7:1-11) On the role of Israel and dealing with the idolatry of the surrounding nations.
This Shabbat's Theme: "Constructive Revenge"
"And the Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, when you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan then you shall designate certain cities to be cities of refuge so that a person who killed another person through error may flee there. The cities of refuge shall be a place of refuge from the avenger, so that the unwitting killer will not die but will be brought to judgment." (Num. 35:9-12)
As some of you may know, my daughter, Laura Blumenfeld has written a non-fiction book (published recently by Simon & Schuster) called "Revenge: A Story of Hope". The book focuses on one of the most powerful emotions that we all share in common - revenge. Written in narrative style, she explores the subject and in so doing, arrives at some interesting conclusions which I would like to share with you at the end of this Shabbat's "Torah Sparks". But first let us analyze ever so briefly the Jewish view on revenge.
At the outset, we should make this unequivocal observation. The Jewish attitude toward personal revenge or vengeance is totally negative. We should feel fairly confident in making this observation because it is based upon one of the most recognized verses in the entire Bible - Lev. 19:18. The second part of the verse, is famililiar to all of us. It states: "you shall love your neighbor as yourself". But it is the first part of that verse which speaks directly to us on our subject when it commands: "You shall not take vengeance, nor shall you bear any grudge against your kinspeople".
This negation of any type of vengeful behavior finds frequent expression in Jewish religious writings. Let it suffice for our purposes now to quote but just one example. In a 17th century cabbalistic work, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (c. 1565 - 1630) counsels: "If your neighbor wronged you, forgive him at once... Would you punish your hand vengefully for having hurt the other?".
One wonders though - what about the Holocaust? If revenge was ever to be considered as a possibility, it certainly could be understood as a perfectly appropriate reaction to the horrific events of the "Shoah".
We know that, in fact, many survivors struggled powerfully with themselves precisely over this matter. One well-known survivor put his feelings in a best-seller book which is probably known to you. It is called " The Sunflower" and the survivor who wrote the book is Simon Weisenthal.
In the book, Mr. Wiesenthal describes how one day he was taken from his work detail in a Nazi concentration camp to the bedside of a dying member of the SS whose head was completely swathed in bandages. The dying Nazi extended his hand to him and in a cracked whisper confessed to having participated in the burning alive of an entire village of Jews. The soldier, terrified of dying with this burden of guilt, begs to receive absolution specifically from a Jew, from Simon Wiesenthal. How did he react and the question of how would you have reacted is the basis of the book. Would you have had compassion for the young dying Nazi soldier, would you have turned off his life support system or would you have perhaps just simply walked out?
When talking to survivors on the subject of revenge, one discovers that many of them have found their own form of nekamah. Some would say that their children and their grandchildren are their revenge. The Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Lau who is a survivor, surely speaks for many survivors when he says that the establishment of the State of Israel is the best form of nekamah - revenge. Others like the Satmar, the Gerer, the Bobover, and the Lubavitcher Hasidim find their nekamah in striving to establish strong, religious communities as they seek to resurrect the splendor of their destroyed former Jewish communities in Europe. For them and all religiously committed Jews, the best form of nekamah is to see and hear our young studying the very same learned Jewish books that the Nazis tried to destroy in their maniacal bonfires.
There is a common pattern then that seems to emerge in our minds out of all of this. We see that our tradition does not permit us to engage in acts of revenge. As Jews, we believe that revenge essentially is unsafe in the hands of human. According to our belief, only God can wreak vengeance. It is so stated in Psalm 94 which we recite every Wednesday morning in our liturgy.
Recognizing that revenge will always exist and that it is part of the human condition, like such emotions as love and jealousy - how then are we to deal with it?
We do have choices. In response to a vicious act by another, one could apply the approach of an "eye for an eye". A second well-known possibility would be to "turn the other cheek". However, realistically speaking, both do not seem to work that well in real life because the first leads to an unending cycle of violence and the second is simply unrealistic.
Laura in her book suggests a third approach which she calls "transformation". Instead of trying to tear the other person down or apart, one should use that fierce inner hurt for the purpose of self-betterment ("constructive revenge"). Looking back, sensing personal growth and improvement can be the best "nekamah". And perhaps, one might even attempt to transform one's assailant in a positive way.