Retribution: Divine and Human
We are not opposed to vengeance in principle. Retribution teaches us that there is rule of law and there is a Judge, and that the punishment of the evildoer is immanent. An indivisible part of faith in justice is the rejection of ethical relativism, which is expressed in a positive attitude towards punishment and reckoning. Retribution grows out of a worldview in which there is good and evil, the brute and the pious are distinguishable from each other, and this is a world in which we should strive to live.
Punishing the Wicked is Requisite but not Joyous
Hence, we are certainly happy when God destroys the wicked, but we do not express joy or sing songs when we ask God for help or to avenge ourselves against our enemies. The Babylonian Talmud (San 39b) expresses this in a midrash about what happened in heaven when the Egyptian army was drowning in the sea:
באותה שעה בקשו מלאכי השרת לומר שירה לפני הקב”ה אמר להן הקב”ה מעשה ידי טובעין בים ואתם אומרים שירה לפני.
At that time the ministering angels wished to sing a song before the Holy One, bb”h. But the Holy One, bb”h said to them: “The work of my hands is drowning in the sea and you want to sing me a song?!”
It is not that God is expressing regret at drowning the Egyptians; that needed to happen. But God is teaching his ministering angels (and through them, us) a lesson, the moment of justice is not a happy one.
The Contemporary Phenomenon of Dancing to Vengeance
Nevertheless, I have seen with my own eyes, over the past two decades, how a number of biblical verses which express desire for vengeance against ancient foes, have become trendy songs among our youth, with accompanying dances, and how these have even been played at simchas. The most famous and popular of these is based on Samson’s final words, before he committed his final act of bringing down the palace in Ashkelon upon himself and his enemies (Judg 16:28):
אֲדֹנָ֣י יֱ-הֹוִ֡ה זָכְרֵ֣נִי נָא֩ וְחַזְּקֵ֨נִי נָ֜א אַ֣ךְ הַפַּ֤עַם הַזֶּה֙ הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים וְאִנָּקְמָ֧ה נְקַם אַחַ֛ת מִשְּׁתֵ֥י עֵינַ֖י מִפְּלִשְׁתִּֽים:
O Lord GOD! Please remember me, and give me strength just this once, O God, to take revenge of the Philistines, if only for one of my two eyes.
I have watched young people dance to this song, their hearts beating, the arms flailing, their voices joining with the chorus. If you look at them closely, you will see that they are totally identifying with this music. Sometimes they lift makeshift weapons in the air to concretize symbolically their own hopes for taking revenge.
Sadly, this is not the only verse that has been turned into a dance of vengeance. The verse under discussion in this symposium, about dashing babies against rocks also has also been turned into one—and I have seen this with my own eyes!—though thankfully less popular than that of Samson.
Such dances should be out of bounds for us, not because of the content of their words—we do not censor biblical texts—but because of the attitude expressed by the dance. We don’t sing and dance about spilling blood. On a practical level, we don’t dance as we are aware of the heavy price we pay for retaliation, as it inevitably brings with it more of the same, and the circle of blood is unending. On a spiritual level, we don’t dance because we are concerned lest the ways of vengeance ruin us, lest we being to enjoy it and the pain it inflicts upon the world. Words of vengeance are not words for dancing.
Having a Proper Attitude Towards Retribution
Shmuel HaKatan was the sage who answered Rabban Gamliel’s call to write the blessing against the sectarians (b. Berachot 28b), asking God to do away with them. A number of commentators suggest that he was the appropriate choice since he would always say (m. Avot 4:19), “Do not be happy about the fall of your enemies.” When we hope for retribution, certainly when we carry it out, we should be focused on the correctness and necessity of the act, not the inflammation of our anger or our desire to see the blood of the enemy spilled. We should be focused on fixing the world, not destroying it.
The fact that verses expressing vengeance have become dances teaches us that we have not succeeded in dividing between the fair and Godly aspects of retribution and the destructive brutal attraction that vengeance can bring along with it. The fact that we can read Psalm 137:9 or the verse about Samson and see these situations as something that we can sing and dance to, if anything, shows that we have arrived at a kind of despair. It implies that we no longer wish to make the world a better place by removing evil, but that we simply want to seek revenge for its own sake, with no benefit.
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February 28, 2015
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Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Orot Shaul in Tel Aviv. A graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Rabbi Cherlow was one of the founders of Tzohar, and serves as the chair of their ethics committee. Among his books are אחריך נרוצה, a commentary on the Song of Songs (2003) and יראה ללבב, on prophecy (2007), and In His Image (2014).
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