Vayishlach: Vengeance and Justice

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

This week’s portion, Vayishlach, begins with the story of Yaakov
wrestling with a mysterious being the night before he meets up with
his estranged brother Esav; after he and Esav appear to reconcile,
they go their separate ways and Yaakov camps near Shechem.
Unfortunately, he must leave that area after his sons, led by Shimon
and Levi, take a terrible and bloody vengeance on the men of the town
in retribution for an apparent sexual assault upon their sister,
Dinah. In the view of the brothers, the prince of the town had treated
Dinah like a prostitute; in revenge, they deceived all the men of the
town, setting them up for death and despoilment. (Cf. Bereshit/Genesis 34)

The story of the “rape of Dinah” (as it is usually known) raises
complex issues of gender, justice and morality; for today, we will
note only that Shimon and Levi’s actions seem to violate a later Torah
prohibition against “taking revenge,” as expressed in
Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a
grudge against your countrymen.”

A clear explanation of this mitzvah is found in Abraham Chill’s book
on the mitzvot (which I recommend), where he brings the classic
rabbinic explanation of the difference between “revenge” and “grudges:”

1) Revenge, or “nekamah,” is when John comes to Hillary and asks to
borrow a tool, and Hillary refuses. The next day, Hillary comes to
John and asks to borrow a different tool, and John says: “you didn’t
lend to me, I’m not going to lend to you.”

2) Bearing a grudge is remembering past slights, as when Rudy comes to
Mitt to borrow a tool, and Mitt says: “OK, I’m lending you the hammer,
even though yesterday you refused to lend me a wrench.”

Please note: the mitzvah of not taking revenge does not mean we should
permit injustice or not hold people accountable for genuine misdeeds.
It means that the accountability should be proportionate to the wrong,
and limited to the actual problem. To put it another way, I might
explain this mitzvah as the spiritual discipline of attempting to stay
emotionally “centered” even when one feels hurt, insulted or harmed in
some way, and to respond from a place of thoughtfulness, not lashing
out. The mitzvah does not preclude protecting ourselves, or speaking
out when we feel hurt- it means that even if we were hurt, the Torah
challenges us to carefully distinguish between justice and vengeance.

There’s nothing easy about this mitzvah- in fact, it might be one of
the hardest in the Torah. Furthermore, it’s easy to say that Shimon
and Levi’s response to Shechem was totally disproportionate to the
offense, but it’s harder to say just how they might have acted in a
way which held the prince accountable and deterred further violence
against their family. While Yaakov himself condemns what the brothers
did, he does so on practical grounds- that they will be considered
outlaws in the region.

Finally, one should note that the verse from Vayikra specifies that we
are not to take revenge against “bnai amecha,” literally, the
“children of your people.” Thus, some commentators have limited this
prohibition to a behavioral norm only within the Jewish community (see
Chill’s quotation from Kli Yakar, for example), but I reject that
view. The rest of the verse tells us to love “our fellow” [re’eacha]
as ourselves- and our fellow humans are all peoples.

The word “vengeance” evokes images of bloody blades like Shimon and
Levi’s, but the examples given above are much closer to ordinary life.
Who among us has never made a cutting and unnecessary remark, or taken
some small action for the purpose of confounding another? The mitzvah
of refraining from revenge is about cultivating an ethical
consciousness even during rage or pain- that is, precisely when it’s
hardest and most necessary. Not bearing a grudge is really about not
letting other people’s actions determine your own- it is the path of
becoming our best selves.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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