Sunday, January 28, 2007


Rabbi Sedley's D'var Torah


After the Israelites have passed safely through the Sea of Reeds, and seen the Egyptians drowned, they sang a song of praise to G-d. The majority of that Song relates the downfall and death of the Egyptians. "I shall sing to G-d, for He is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse and rider into the sea; G-d is master of war; Pharaoh's chariots and army He threw in the sea; In Your abundant grandeur you shatter Your opponents..." (Exodus 15; 1 ff.). Here it seems that G-d is praised through wreaking vengeance on His enemies.
This is in contrast to the specific prohibition against seeking revenge, "You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge..." (Leviticus 19; 18). The Talmud highly praises someone who does not seek revenge, "Those who are insulted, and don't respond, that hear themselves being denigrated and don't respond, who act from love, and rejoice in their suffering about them the verse states, 'Those who love G-d are like the rising sun in its might' (Judges 5; 31)" (Yoma 23a).
Furthermore, the song that the Israelites sang was forbidden to the angels to sing: After the Israelites had crossed through the Reed Sea the angels wanted to sing a song of praise of G-d. He said to them, 'Should you sing a song while My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea? (Megillah 10b). It seems that the angels were expected to show compassion at the deaths of the Egyptians, despite the suffering that they caused to the Israelites. How were the Israelites themselves permitted to sing praises of G-d?
The Talmud also implies that revenge is not always a bad thing, "Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak, any Torah scholar who does not seek revenge and bear a grudge like a snake is not a true scholar" (Yoma 22b). Elsewhere it states, "How great is revenge, for it was written between two names of G-d, as the verse states, 'G-d, Who seeks revenge is G-d' (Psalms 114; 1)" (Brachot 33a). Furthermore, the Midrash states that the revelation of G-d's revenge that the nations witnessed at the Reed Sea brought great glory to G-d:
"Then Moshe sang..." (Exodus 15; 1). This is the meaning of the verse "Your [G-d's] throne was established from then" (Psalms 93; 1). Rav Berachiah stated in the name of Rabbi Abahu that even though You are eternal, but You were not seated on Your throne, and not known in Your world until Your children recited the Song of the Sea. (Shemos Rabba 23; 1).
The resolution of this apparent contradiction is that there are two kinds of revenge. The common usage of the word revenge implies something which is motivated by pride and a base desire for punishment for one's enemies. The Talmud explains:
"What is revenge and what is bearing a grudge? A person asked to borrow their neighbour's sickle, and was refused, then the following the day the same neighbour asks to borrow his axe. If he refuses saying, 'Just as you wouldn't lend to me', this is revenge. What is bearing a grudge? A person asked to borrow their neighbour's axe, and was refused, then the following the day the same neighbour asks to borrow an item of clothing. If he responds, 'You may borrow it, because unlike you I do lend out my possessions' this is bearing a grudge. (Yoma 23a).
There is also vengeance which is solely a quest for justice. Though in English the word 'vengeance' has a pejorative meaning, in Hebrew does not necessarily have connotations of vindictiveness. It is this type of vengeance which a Torah scholar must possess, and which was written in the Torah between two of G-d's names.
The world was set up in a constant balance between G-d's mercy and His strict justice. Without mercy the world would not have been able to exist for a moment, at the first sin everything would have been returned to emptiness and void. However, without justice G-d is not a G-d of truth. Therefore He must meet out justice, and reward and punishment so that fairness is preserved. It is through G-d's carrying out of justice that He is clearly perceived in the world. Every time that a sin goes unpunished, because of G-d's mercy, there is an opportunity to think that there is no Judge and no justice. When the wicked are punished we see the Heavenly Judge in action.
However, only the injured party can seek this revenge. If someone else seeks revenge on their behalf it cannot be solely a quest for justice. This is why the Israelites were permitted to sing G-d's praises, because they had suffered under the Egyptians. But the angels who had only observed their suffering were not permitted to rejoice at the downfall of the Egyptians.
We can now understand why G-d was not 'seated on His throne' until after the splitting of the sea. For 210 years the Egyptians had persecuted the Israelites with apparent impunity. They forgot that there was a G-d who ran the world. At the time of their punishment all the nations witnessed the fact that everyone ultimately receives their just desserts.

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