Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Tzav
To dedicate this lesson

Vengeance as the Foundation of the Nation and Faith

'Vengeance' - an important but misunderstood concept - is relevant not only to the recent Purim holiday, but also to this week's Torah portion of Tzav (Lev. Chapters 6-8), which discusses laws and procedures of sacrificial offerings...


Rabbi Yechezkel Frenkel

Nissan 9 5783
Translated by Hillel Fendel

"Vengeance" – an important but misunderstood concept – is relevant not only to the recent Purim holiday, but also to this week's Torah portion of Tzav (Lev. Chapters 6-8), which discusses laws and procedures of sacrificial offerings.

The holy Or HaChaim (Rabbeinu Chaim ben Attar, 18th-century, Morocco and Palestine) explains that the Olah offering – which is burnt totally upon the altar – alludes to the terrible suffering and length of "this present and final Exile." He explains that nearly each word in this passage symbolizes another aspect of our centuries of suffering, such as (translations based on

(burnt-offering) "the ones who were burned up on the site for burning;"

mokdah (the altar's hearth) - a reference to Torah, which is often compared to fire, and to young Torah scholars and their suffering;

al hamizbe'ach (upon the altar) - a reference to exile and all its afflictions, which achieve for the suffering Jewish Nation that which the sacrifices achieved on the altar: atonement for our sins.

Mido bad (the priest's linen garment) – "when [the] time arrives, even such attributes as Love and Mercy will consent to G-d avenging the wrong done to the Jewish people by the nations of the world. [In addition,] in light of a comment by our sages that G-d makes a visible mark of the blood of any Jew who was killed for his Jewishness on His "garment." On the day when G-d goes out to exact retribution from our enemies He will wear that "garment" on His heart…

The priest's linen trousers - a reference to the pagans who killed leading Jews because they tried to introduce the concept of belief in G-d into the hearts of their fellow Jews... In view of what these wicked nations have done to these righteous Jews, G-d has sealed their decree of destruction…

The priest "will elevate the ashes" - To the extent that the Gentile nations have reduced us to ashes by means of torture and persecution, G-d in turn will elevate these very ashes to unheard of heights… The Torah predicts that G-d will consume these nations as if by fire…

"Upon the altar" - Continuing this allegorical approach, this refers to G-d's retribution against the nations who have abused the Jewish people… They will be punished not only for their excesses, but for the part they would not have been culpable for had they perceived themselves as true agents of G-d… By confronting the attribute of Justice with all the excesses perpetrated against us by our enemies, G-d will enlist its support for His plan to punish our enemies.

Etc. etc.

The verses of the Torah thus seem to be standing up for the attribute of Vengeance, which has been abused and batted down by modern life replete with the hypocrisy of Christian "forgiveness" and its accompanying false compassion and misplaced mercy. On the contrary, true vengeance is too profound and fundamental for it to remain only in the hands of bullies and others who do not grasp its depth. Our Sages teach that vengeance is "great, because it was given between two Divine Names: E-l nekamot Hashem – 'G-d is a G-d of vengeances' (Psalms 94,1)."

The Prophet Shmuel is likened to Moshe and Aharon together, was consecrated for the service of G-d from infancy, and was the beloved shepherd of Israel before the onset of the period of kings. He is also the one who did not hesitate to wield a sword and slash the neck of Amalek's King Agag. This is because vengeance is not a mere outlet for aggression and violence. Rather, the value of vengeance on a national level, and of Jewish national war in general, is primarily to sanctify G-d's name by punishing wickedness and evil.

He who does not have this value of Kiddush Hashem – the sanctification of G-d's name – before his eyes when he inflicts or anticipates vengeance, but rather seeks only violence for its own sake, cannot be said to be whole-heartedly and sincerely fulfilling the mitzvah of inflicting G-d's vengeance in its proper time.

The National Dimension

Looking at this issue from the nation's perspective, the story of King Sha'ul and his failure to destroy Amalek as instructed shows us the danger of misplaced and even wrongful compassion towards those who are cruel, and the gravity of enfeebling the power of vengeance.

It is fascinating to note the similarity between two verses in Samuel I: The first one (15,3) is Shmuel's directive to King Sha'ul to wipe out Amalek, and the second (22,19) describes what King Sha'ul actually did to Nov, the city of priests. Both verses describe destruction "from man to woman, every baby, and ox and lamb." This brought the Sages to derive the following profound and so-relevant message: "Whoever is merciful to the cruel, will end up being cruel to the merciful" (Medrash Yalkut Shimoni 121).

Once Sha'ul did not fulfill the first mission and did not direct the power of war against the enemy, this power was channeled towards Nov and its priests. The Sages are essentially saying that the power of vengeance will find a way to burst forth one way or another; if not towards destroying evil, then, Heaven forbid, it is liable to fall upon the righteous.

From this angle, it is not hard to apply this to our current sociological situation. It is very likely that our continuing compassion and official "gentle" approach towards our enemies is essentially an uprooting of the army's boldness in combat. This brings upon our society clouds of injustice that trickle down to our collective subconscious, creating new aggressions in place of the Torah-mandated ones, manifest in knifings and other violence by youth, family and road violence, murders in clubs, and the like.

We have been educated – by the media, liberal academics, and the like – to accept the distorted view that the normalcy of power vis-à-vis the enemy is primitive and negative. As our Sages taught, the almost automatic result is that our professional empathizers don't even hesitate to threaten, openly or otherwise, civil war amongst ourselves.

The Individual Dimension

This weakness trickles down to the individuals as well. "Cancelling" the traits of might and willingness to meet our enemy head-on creates weak character as well as difficulty in facing one's own shortcomings and life's other challenges. It brings about a generation of youth that backs away from physical effort – even sometimes from hikes throughout the Land. People who have been brought up on "anti-macho" ideals end up terming others - those who are strong in their national awareness and willingness to sacrifice for national ideals – as violent and overly forceful. (The fact is, however, that the latter are actually typified by a rich and serene social life, as well as love and acceptance towards their neighbors and friends.)

A society of weakness-disguised-as-morality cannot get very far. This is why too often we hear of "parents' committees" for combat soldiers, phone calls to commanders demanding that their little boy eat well, sleep well, and always be wearing his sweater… This is also why we too often see the surrealistic picture on the roads of Judea and Samaria of soldiers laden with helmets and protective gear from head to foot, while hundreds of family cars pass them by on the roads, filled with little children and their mother at the wheel, distributing hot tea and candies to the frightened soldiers at the checkpoints…

When these ideas permeate society, the leaders it produces are also students of this formula espousing weakness and withdrawal. No wonder the majority supports the passive, "peaceful" approach. Regarding this attribute of laziness, the Torah used the so-accurate image from the story of the Sin of the Spies: "Our brothers [the scouts who brought back a negative report of the Holy Land] have melted and softened our hearts." This is the problem: When the heart melts, it becomes water, which is identified with the all-important trait of kindness that is so constructive in times of peace, but which must be postponed until after the war - so that in the end, truly "a world of kindness will be built" (Psalms 89,3).

The Divine Dimension

After all is said and done, the most important dimension in this discussion is that of the Divine, in which is found the primary value of strength and might vis-à-vis the enemy. G-d demands that we demand justice – and we, in turn, demand justice of G-d, our father, king, and shepherd! 

King David wrote in Psalms: "Why should the nations say, 'Where is their G-d?'" In order to avoid these questions on G-d, he continued, "Let it be known among the nations, before our eyes, the vengeance of your servants' spilt blood." We want the justice to be not only theoretical, but openly evident and recognized. Let it be seen that the long accounting we have with our enemies is set before the Master of the Universe, including all the pogroms, expulsions, inquisitions, ghettoes, mass murders – and the resulting desecration of G-d's name. This account must be paid in full, so that the Divine justice will be revealed in the world.

It is therefore clear that not with bullying, but with strength and empowerment; and not with violence, but certainly with clear-cut justice - we demand the fulfillment of the final words of the holy Ohr HaChaim [in the above-cited passage based on this week's Torah portion of the burnt-offering]:

The Redemption should have happened already – but still, the Torah tells us that the nations must not assume that they will be the beneficiaries of the Jewish people's sins and will therefore escape their just punishment. When the time comes, the nations will be duly punished for what they did to us. The message of the burnt-offering is that G-d will match the punishment in detail to what the Gentiles have done to His righteous ones, and the "continuous and ongoing fire" on the altar tells us that though G-d will inflict severe blows on the nations, the fire of punishment will not go out; as G-d told the prophet Yoel, "I will not treat their blood as having been avenged" until the earth has been cleansed of the spirit of impurity and "G-d rules as King over the whole earth" (Zechariah 14,9).

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