Acharei Mot – Kedoshim 5781: Live with a Vengeance!.
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )
GOOD MORNING! This past week, Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility suffered a major attack in which a large explosion destroyed a number of centrifuges used to enrich uranium, as well as the independent – and heavily protected – internal power system that supplied power to the underground centrifuges.
Iran responded with their usual bloodthirsty calls for revenge and retribution. Yawn. Whatever. Perhaps the only thing Iran has perfected over the last two decades is irrelevant and empty threats of retaliation. Still, it did cause me to reflect on the nature of revenge and what drives it.
In Judaism, we find several references to revenge and retribution. Perhaps the most common (and frequently overlooked) is when memorializing someone who was murdered in some unjust and tragic circumstance (e.g. pogroms, the Holocaust, terror attacks, etc.).
In those situations – when mentioning the dead – the reference is often followed by the letters HY’D. This is the acronym for Hebrew equivalent of “Hashem Yikom Damom – May God avenge their blood.” This is based on the verse in Torah; “He will avenge the blood of his servants” (Deuteronomy 32:43).
This is very significant. In general, vengeance can seem kind of bloodthirsty. However, this is a good representation of the Jewish value and core belief that God runs the world and that vengeance is ultimately in the hands of God and not the domain of angry vigilantes.
Still, on rare occasions, there is a time and place for vengeance. This can be seen in the story of Aaron’s grandson Pinchas when he avenged God’s honor and restored peace between God and the Jewish people (see the full story in Numbers 25:1-15).
This actually hints to the etymological root of the Hebrew word for revenge, nekama. The root of nekama is “koom,” which is the word for getting up. Meaning, revenge can remedy one who has fallen (and perhaps was stepped upon) by helping them stand up once again. Revenge can sometimes provide a sense of restored equilibrium, as if the scales are back in balance.
This is what happened in the story of Pinchas when the Jews had defiantly (and publicly) acted immorally and committed idol worship. This had caused a rupture in their relationship with the Almighty. When Pinchas acted to restore God’s honor by executing a leader of the insurrection the nation reflected on their insubordination and repented. This restored the peace between the Almighty and the Jewish people.
But this is usually not the case. In general, psychologists have determined that acts of revenge don’t usually resolve the issue or bring relief to the perpetrators of the revenge. The reason for this is probably that the excessive compulsion for revenge keeps one focused on his hurt and pain. Dr. Kevin Carlsmith, a social psychologist who has published some studies on the subject of revenge says, “Rather than providing closure, it does the opposite: It keeps the wound open and fresh.”
This also brings to mind a quote that has been attributed to Ghandi (and was a line uttered by Tevye in the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof): “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the whole world blind and toothless.”
Of course, this week’s Torah portion has a relevant message on this topic, both the prohibition against taking revenge and holding a grudge appear in this week’s Torah reading: “You should not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people. You should love your friend as yourself, I am Hashem” (Leviticus 19:18).
We must digress to point out that this is the source for the famous teaching of Rabbi Akiva (the great sage of the first century): “Loving your friend as yourself is a primary principle of the Torah.” We will soon see why.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin, a towering Torah personality in the 19th century, who was primarily known by his acronym Netziv, makes a fascinating observation: “Why does the Torah juxtapose the prohibitions of not taking revenge and holding a grudge together with the commandment to love your friend as yourself?”
To answer this question, the Netziv quotes a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 9:4), which makes an interesting observation. If a person is holding a knife in one hand while cutting a piece of meat and his hand slips and cuts the other hand, what is the proper response? Should the hand that was cut attack the first hand and cut it as well as retribution? Of course not, it’s an absurd notion.
The Netziv explains that this is what the Torah is teaching us here. You have to perceive your friend as yourself. Thus, taking revenge or holding a grudge against him is as pointless as taking revenge or holding a grudge against yourself, because hurting your friend is akin to hurting yourself. This is why the Torah juxtaposes these two concepts in the same verse.
This would also explain why R’ Akiva felt that this concept was a “primary principle of the Torah.” The ultimate purpose of the world is to recognize that Hashem is the source of everything and that everything is bound by His “oneness.” This is the deeper meaning behind the Aleinu prayer that ends with “On that day He will be one and His name will be one.”
(I believe this also hints to the “Singularity Theory,” which, in brief, is the belief that a series of events will ultimately change physics as we know it. I will, God willing, one day devote a column to this interesting concept.)
The ultimate point of this verse in the Torah is that our nation is really all one entity and that we are “all in this together.” We should perceive ourselves as separate arms of the same body. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case.
COVID, which is easily the single most unique worldwide event of the last two generations, has taught us NOTHING if we haven’t learned how interconnected we all are to one another. Someone in a far corner of the world makes a mistake and it effects just about everyone else on the planet.
The single most visible response to this disease has been the requirement to wear face masks. This is important on two levels. First of all, regular face masks are not really for one’s own protection, they are primarily worn to protect others. Secondly, masks cover the one feature that differentiates people from one another – their face. Even our phones don’t recognize us when wearing a face mask.
In other words, the lesson of this disease is that we are supposed to be less self-absorbed and we should begin to consider what we can do for others – a direct message related to loving others as yourself.
Unfortunately, this message is lost on many people. I am consistently surprised at how self-unaware many, if not most, individuals behave. People who were militant in the early months of COVID, assiduously complying with all the CDC guidelines, suddenly abandoned all the protocols once they themselves became ill.
I have found that, in general, those who blatantly refused to wear face masks when everyone else was complying, weren’t doing so because they were conscientious objectors who based their decision on their understanding of medicine. In fact, it was more telling about what kind of people they were than an indication of their medical or scientific knowledge.
(It reminds me of a quote from Fidel Castro about Hugo Chavez, that told you more about Castro than Chavez; “I have observed him over the course of seventeen years, ever since his first visit to Cuba. He is an extremely humanitarian and law abiding person; he has never taken revenge on anybody.”)
Understanding that we all have a responsibility to treat one another as we would like to be treated is an area in which we can ALL improve because this perspective is difficult to maintain. Perhaps this is why Hillel, the great sage who lived at the end of the Second Temple period, felt it necessary to add a modification of this verse in the Torah by mandating, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your friend.”
Acharei Mot – Kedoshim, Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27
Acharei Mot includes the Yom Kippur service where the Kohen Gadol casts lots to designate two goats – one to be sacrificed, the other to be driven to a place called Azazel after the Kohen Gadol – the High Priest – confesses the sins of the people upon its head. Today it is a very popular epithet in Israel to instruct another person in the heat of an argument to “go to Azazel.” (I don't believe the intent, however, is to look for the goat.)
The goat sent to Azazel symbolically carried away the sins of the Jewish people. This, I surmise, is the source of the concept of using a scapegoat. One thing you can truly give credit to the Jewish people – when we use a scapegoat, at least we use a real goat!
The Torah then proceeds to set forth the sexual laws – who you are not allowed to marry or have relations with. If one appreciates that the goal of life is to be holy, to perfect oneself, and to be as much as possible like God, then he/she can appreciate that it is impossible to orgy at night and be spiritual by day.
The Torah portion of Kedoshim invokes the Jewish people to be holy! It then proceeds with the spiritual directions on how to achieve holiness, closeness to the Almighty. Within it lie the secrets and the prescription for Jewish continuity. If any group of people is to survive as an entity, it must have common values and goals – a direction and a meaning. By analyzing this portion we can learn much about our personal and national destiny.
Weak people revenge, strong people forgive, intelligent people ignore.