This week’s double Torah reading Matot-Masei, the concluding chapters of the Book of Numbers, carries with it a very important and challenging story.
In the second verse of chapter 31, God speaks to Moses and tells him, “Avenge the Israelite people against the Midianites. Then you shall be gathered to your kin.”
We all know, or at least this is my basic notion, that human beings are capable of doing good and evil. We are capable of doing things of which we can be proud and other things for which we’d be hard-pressed to find approval.
What happens, then, when God speak about revenge? Is vengeance part of our expectation of how we are supposed to emulate God? Is that something we want to adopt in following the Lord’s ways?
Certainly, we want to do as God is doing. But do we want to avenge in the same way God avenges?
In fact, we have an actual commandment – לא תיקום ולא תיטור – that instructs us not to take revenge and not to hold on to a grudge against someone who has harmed us. This commandment tells us, very clearly, we are not supposed to avenge.
How do we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory ideas? How can we find a balance that works for us and which works for those of us who feel that revenge is beyond his or her protocol, that vengeance does not fit with his or her expectations of how one should behave?
I think that one of the possible ways of reading chapter 31 is actually for us to read it and feel uncomfortable so that we pause, reconsider the verse and say, “No, we don’t want our God to avenge, this is not part of our Judaism, this is not part of our tradition.”
Perhaps that is exactly the reason that it is in the Torah, not in order for us to accept it and not in order for us to follow it, but in order for us to stop, to say, “No, thank you. This is not part of what I am.”
Then, in your personal life, when you are in the moment that someone has harmed you and you want to avenge, you can recall the last time that you read about God’s motivation to avenge and how uncomfortable it made you feel.
You can ask yourself, maybe I should feel uncomfortable with my motivation. And you can stop right there and say to yourself, “לא תיקום ולא תיטור” – you shouldn’t avenge, you shouldn’t hold on to the desire to strike back.
Rather, you should actually look into repairing and rebuilding your relationship, even though it was harmed, even though it is difficult to do.
Shavua Tov from Schechter.
Avi Novis-Deutsch is Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. Ordained as a Masorti rabbi by the SRS in 2003, Rabbi Novis-Deutsch also has an MA in Jewish Studies from JTS. He served for nine years as a pulpit rabbi at two Masorti congregations in Israel, most recently, at Haminyan Hamishpachti Masorti Kfar Veradim. Rabbi Novis-Deutsch also worked for two years as a Jewish educator in Berkeley in the Bay Area, California. He is married to Dr. Nurit Novis-Deutsch. They and their three children live on Kibbutz Hanaton.