Torah Thoughts: Parashat Vaera 5779
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
Justice, not Revenge
This week we read Parashat Vaera. We are told about the first seven plagues that hit Egypt. As you know, the story of the ten plagues presents certain ethical challenges that are important to address. One of the criticisms that you may hear about the biblical ten plagues’ story is that they sound like God is taking revenge over the Egyptians. I would like to explain why this is not correct and also take the advantage of this opportunity to describe a very important Jewish ethical principle.
If you read the Torah text about the plagues, you will notice that there is no reference to any revenge. The goals of bringing the plagues were to convince Pharaoh and the Egyptians that the Hebrew people had to be liberated, and eventually to punish Pharaoh for his crimes against the Hebrew people. The main goal is to free the people of Israel. And that main goal had to be achieved in a way that the Egyptians would understand that the liberation of the Hebrew people was not Pharaoh’s decree, but the willing of God. As it is written in the Torah,
“And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord when I stretch forth My hand over Egypt, and I will take the children of Israel out of their midst” (Exodus 7:5).
Therefore, it is completely clear from the Torah text that the idea of bringing the ten plagues over the Egyptians had nothing to do with revenge.
At this point, I would like to add a commentary about revenge and the Jewish tradition. I want to show you that there is no place for revenge in Judaism.
As you know, one of our most important mitzvot is,
“… You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18).
We quote and repeat this verse often times, and we even sing it in different occasions. It is part of our identity as Jews to love our neighbors. However, this phrase is only the second part of the biblical verse. The first part reads,
“You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people…”.
We are not a people of revenge, we don’t like nor do we practice it. On the contrary, our sources condemn the revenge. Even in the case of the Egyptians, who enslaved, killed and caused so much suffering to many generations of our ancestors, the Torah warns us against hating them,
“You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a sojourner in his land” (Deuteronomy 23:8).
Of course, we have to defend ourselves if attacked, but it is clear that there is no place for hate and revenge in the Jewish tradition. Since biblical times, beginning with the ten plagues, we teach our children not to hate and not to take revenge. This ethical principle is part of our Jewish identity and we should be very proud of it. We always look for justice, never for revenge!