Better Than Revenge

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Does the deeply-seated need for revenge mean that we are trapped between two approaches, each of which is unsatisfactory? On the one hand, acting upon our instinctive need plunges us into unending cycles of retaliation. On the other, the rule of law seems to demand the suppression of an undeniable part of our nature. Are we destined to give revenge either too much or too little? Jared Diamond, the fascinating cell membrane physiologist, turned evolutionary biologist of birds, turned ecological geographer, examines this question in a recent article in The New Yorker.

I have read Diamond since my teens, and always been overwhelmed by his versatility. As a writer, he is engaging and clear. He won a Pulitzer for Guns, Germs, and Steel; it is one of the most important secular books I read in the last ten years. [Warning: this is not a pitch or endorsement. Those who believe in a six thousand year-old earth will only be offended by the book, and find nothing of value therein. Those who admit to other possibilities will find remarkable insights into how the Ribbono Shel Olam, by cleverly arranging geographical features within continents, may have engineered the emergence of key groups that would dominate the history of the most recent millennia, and facilitated key discoveries like plant and animal husbandry that would be important in the development of human civilizations. The list of early human achievements at the end of parshas Bereishis will never be the same after reading it.]

Diamond presents his dilemma by contrasting the behavior of a New Guinea society with that of his Holocaust survivor father in law. New Guinea comes first in the article.

In 1992, when Daniel Wemp was about twenty-two years old, his beloved paternal uncle Soll was killed in a battle against the neighboring Ombal clan. In the New Guinea Highlands, where Daniel and his Handa clan live, uncles and aunts play a big role in raising children, so an uncle’s death represents a much heavier blow than it might to most Americans. Daniel often did not even distinguish between his biological father and other male clansmen of his father’s generation. And Soll had been very good to Daniel, who recalled him as a tall and handsome man, destined to become a leader. Soll’s death demanded vengeance.

Daniel told me that responsibility for arranging revenge usually falls on the victim’s firstborn son or, failing that, on one of his brothers. “Soll did have a son, but he was only six years old at the time of his father’s death, much too young to organize the revenge,” Daniel said. “On the other hand, my father was felt to be too old and weak by then; the avenger should be a strong young man in his prime. So I was the one who became expected to avenge Soll.” As it turned out, it took three years, twenty-nine more killings, and the sacrifice of three hundred pigs before Daniel succeeded in discharging this responsibility.

Diamond explicates the rules governing the system of revenge that Daniel’s Handa tribe taught him. Children are taught early to hate their enemy, and to consider it honorable to die in the pursuit of revenge. Revenge is taken not only against an actual killer, and not by the closest blood relative alone. Formal group fights are organized, with their own rules. Each fight has an “owner,” or organizer. Should anyone die, the appropriate person aims to take revenge against the owner of the fight on the opposing side, since the identity of the actual killer often remains unknown. Every fatality produces more avengers on the opposing side, with nothing to stop them other than an alliance of convenience between the two sides against an even stronger enemy.

Daniel concluded his story in the same happy, satisfied, straightforward tone in which he had recounted the rest of it. “Now, when I visit an Ombal village to play basketball, and Isum comes to watch the game in his wheelchair, I feel sorry for him,” he said. “Occasionally, I go over to Isum, shake his hand, and tell him, ‘I feel sorry for you.’ But people see Isum. They know that he will be suffering all the rest of his life for having killed Soll. People remember that Isum used to be a tall and handsome man, destined to be a future leader. But so was my uncle Soll. By getting Isum paralyzed, I gained appropriate revenge for the killing of my tall and handsome uncle, who had been very good to me, and who would have become a leader.”

Daniel’s story would seem to confirm to us the value of societal restraint over its alternative: descending into the chaos that follows from following our darker instincts. But this is where Diamond takes us to the other extreme. His father-in-law, Jozef Nabel, was sent from Poland to Siberia when the Soviets took over. Pressed into service in a Polish division of the Red Army, he returned in uniform to his native village of Klaj, where he learned of the fate of his family. He discovered the identity of the Pole who led the gang that had found out where his mother, sister and niece had been hidden by their Catholic housekeeper for two years. Convinced that all Jews had money hidden away, they shot all three when they had none to offer.

Jozef had the man brought to him, but could not bring himself to shoot him, nor to allow his men to shoot him. Instead, he succumbed to the rule of law – he handed the perpetrator over to the Polish authorities, who incarcerated him for a year, and then let him go.

Diamond tells us that it was not until an advanced age that Jozef could begin to talk about his experiences in the Shoah. When he did, he admitted he thought of his murdered family every day of his life, and of the opportunity that he had lost by not shooting their killer.

We regularly ignore the fact that the thirst for vengeance is among the strongest of human emotions. It ranks with love, anger, grief, and fear, about which we talk incessantly. Modern state societies permit and encourage us to express our love, anger, grief, and fear, but not our thirst for vengeance. We grow up being taught that such feelings are primitive, something to be ashamed of and to transcend.

There is no doubt that state acceptance of every individual’s right to exact personal vengeance would make it impossible for us to coexist peacefully as fellow-citizens of the same state. Otherwise, we, too, would be living under the conditions of constant warfare prevailing in non-state societies like those of the New Guinea Highlands. In that sense, Jozef was right to leave punishment of his mother’s killer to the Polish state, and it was tragic that the Polish state failed him so shamefully. Yet, even if the killer had been properly punished, Jozef would still have been deprived of the personal satisfaction that Daniel enjoyed.

Diamond leaves us with this unsettling choice between two options, neither of which seema to work. But Jozef’s situation was atypical. He had had the chance to mete out measure-for-measure justice in one fell swoop, in a single instant, for a crime of uncommon severity and that caused uncommon pain. Losing that opportunity would make Jozefs out of all of us. Most of us, however, deal with the instinct for revenge in far less pressing situations, where other options may exist.

Diamond may have overlooked some of these. Our Torah presents a third way. We certainly do not invalidate the desire for revenge, especially after great loss. A gemara (Yoma 23A) excludes people who have suffered physical or psychological pain from the prohibition against revenge-taking and grudge-bearing. While it is not clear that this distinction is halachically dispositive, (it seems to be the subject of a dispute among rishonim; the Chofetz Chaim, Introduction, Lavin, #8-9, rules stringently in the face of a safek issur d’oraiso), it nonetheless is true that the feeling for revenge, the need we feel within, is not itself invalidated. We are taught to tame it, to consider our pain within a broader context, not to disown the tendency.

This is illustrated by the explanation of R. Aharaon Halevi in Sefer HaMitzvos (#242), who is one of the rishonim who takes a stricter view about revenge even for the infliction of pain. He sees bitachon as the key to the mitzvah, and the balm that can heal the wounded soul. We resist the urge for revenge by remembering that nothing happens to us – not the things we like, not the events we detest – without Divine consent, without fitting into a Divine scheme. When we understand the role of hashgacha pratis in our lives, we do not necessarily comprehend more, but we become aware that we are victims of neither blind fate, nor of the caprice of evil human beings who have unfettered license to harm us with impunity. Murderers and other evil people must be resisted and punished – but their exercise of their own free will is not complete. They cannot act without G-d’s permission. We cannot begin to understand why that permission is given – not in the case of a single human tragedy, and not in the case of a Holocaust – but we do know that He understands His reasons. The certainty that there is an explanation, even when it is withheld from us, pushes the natural desire for vengeance lower on our list of priorities, if not eliminates it altogether.

This approach has a time-honored role in Jewish behavior. Holocaust survivors more recently have shown us another way as well. I have never heard survivors obsess about tracking down their tormentors from Buchenwald and doing them in. To be sure, there were some who pursued this path; the rest of us cheered when we read of their exploits. It was not the rule, however, either because most did not care enough after a while, or they simply had no way to accomplish it.

Observant survivors did get their vengeance, not by acting on the instinct, but by sublimating it. They quietly rebuilt their lives, while struggling with their nightmares. Many gradually opened up in time to discussing their ordeals with their children and the world at large. They took unusual pride in a different kind of vengeance. They restarted families. They built shuls and schools and mikvahs and yeshivos. They watched Torah Judaism not only rise from its ashes, but flourish numerically beyond anyone’s wildest projections. They saw a State of Israel survive the onslaught of those who would finish Hitler’s work in 1948, and watched the fledgling grow into a giant. There was no sweeter revenge than the spiritual rebirth of a people whom the world believed to be poised on the brink of extinction. Vengeance was gained first by survival, and then by triumph.

Diamond, true to his calling, would like us to believe that the heart of the New Guinea tribesman beats in all of us, in whole or in part. We do not have to accept, however, that there is no satisfactory way of transcending or escaping our darker instincts. Our survivor parents and grandparents may have proved that, among all the other important lessons we learned from them.

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8 Responses

  1. Raymond says:

    I understand and agree with Rabbi Adlerstein’s very valid point, that success is the best revenge.

    Nevertheless, I do think that there is something very wrong about letting evil people get away with their evil deeds. They must be taught a lesson, put in their place, somehow made to understand the suffering that they have inflicted on innocent people.

    That Holocaust survivor should have killed those who murdered his family; it sounds clear to me that he spent the rest of his life regretting not having done so. Measure for Measure surpasses Turning the Other Cheek in my very strong sense of justice.

  2. Yehoshua Gavant says:

    Living well is the best revenge. (George Herbert)

  3. Avigdor says:

    The Oresteia is a wonderful midrash on this whole problem. Its solution to the cycle of revenge and violence is a neutral and independent court system that metes out justice.

  4. norm depalma says:

    Holocaust survivors feel pain, loss and even guilt whether they exact revenge or not, whether they build a bayit neeman beyisroel etc

  5. tzippi says:

    I’m not troubled by any connection to concept of go-el hadam. The connection is loose at best. Honor, and saving face, is not part and parcel of the mitzvah, at least not as I’ve learned.
    And, is the mitzvah of go-el hadam reshus (optional) or chov (mandatory)?

  6. mb says:

    “It is no accident that after the Holocaust Jews did not call it Al-Naqba, nursing resentment and revenge, but instead turned to the future, building a nation whose national anthem is Hatikvah, ‘the hope’.”
    Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks.
    Chag Semeach

  7. soccer dad says:

    What about the law of Go-el hadam? It allows the taking of revenge under very specific circumstances. It also allows the accidental murderer a way to save his own life at the cost of his freedom.

  8. Garnel Ironheart says:

    What is the proper balance between “Thou shalt not bear a grudge, neither shalt thou take revenge” and “Don’t be so sweet that you get eaten up?”

    Also, am I the only person who thought of the Goel HaDam rule when reading this article?