The Folly of Revenge
Parshat Chayei Sarah
Revenge is sweet. No one knows for sure where the phrase came from, but likely it was from someone who experienced that sweetness. But there are other phrases as well, that describe the other side of revenge. “Revenge is like a rolling stone, which, when a man hath forced up a hill, will return upon him with greater violence, and break the bones whose sinews gave it motion.” “Revenge proves its own executioner.” “He that studieth revenge keepeth his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.”
The drive for revenge sends people into some pretty dark places, and here are just a few examples:
The Pink Revenge House. In 1925, a wealthy husband and wife were in middle of a bitter divorce when she finally agreed to the divorce terms on the condition that he build her an exact replica of the opulent house they were currently living in. He agreed, the divorce was signed, and it was up to the husband to fulfill his part of the agreement.
Unfortunately for the wife, she forgot to specify where she wanted that house built, so her husband built the house in the middle of nowhere on a salty marsh called Plum Island, near the city of Newburyport, MA. It was situated in a place where the plumbing system could never be hooked up to running water. It still stands, and was surprisingly occupied for many of its ninety-three years, but never got running water.
The Church of Revenge. Henry VIII, the king of England from 1509-1547, is probably best known for his six wives. Two of them were first cousins, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, and those were the two whose marriage to Henry VIII ended with their heads being rapidly detached from their bodies. Jane Seymour died twelve days after giving birth to Eddie, who later became known as Edward IV, King of England and Ireland, who reigned from the age of nine until his death at fifteen. Catherine Parr was the widow that survived Henry VIII. Then there were the two wives whose marriages were annulled, Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleeves.
By Catholic law, divorce is prohibited, and for most people that simply meant that you couldn’t move on from a wife you didn’t want to remain married to. But if you had enough money, you could buy yourself an annulment from the church, where the church would declare that your marriage never happened. King Henry VIII wanted his marriage of 24 years to Catherine Aragon annulled because she failed to produce a son, and there was no precedent regarding a daughter assuming the throne upon the death of the monarch, and reached out to Pope Clement VIII for an annulment. But the pope was effectively a prisoner of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was close to the family of Catherine of Aragon, and refused to annul the marriage. In revenge, Henry VIII started his own church, the Church of England, and confiscated all the Catholic church’s holdings in England. Needless to say, the Church of England gave Henry VIII the annulment, and even threw in another one for Anne of Cleeves a few years later because they were running a BOGO special.
Smelly Revenge. Divorces are often acrimonious but sometimes they’re malodorous as well. Last year, when a California couple got divorced, the billionaire husband was angry that he lost his 13,819 square foot Laguna Beach mansion. But seeking revenge, he emptied dozens of bottles of horrible smelling solution all over the house and left dead fish in the venting.
Turn off the sun revenge. In the 1870’s, railroad barons started buying up real estate in the San Francisco neighborhood of Nob Hill, notable for its sweeping views of the city and the Pacific Ocean. Charles Crocker, one of the barons bought some property and built an appropriate mansion, but he wanted the whole block as well to build a guest home and install a garden. The house next to his was occupied by Nicholas Yung, a German immigrant, and when Charles Crocker offered to buy his house, Nicholas felt that the offer price was a bit low, and countered that he would only sell it for a few thousand more. Enraged, Charles Crocker instead spent the same few thousand dollars erecting a forty-foot wooden fence at the edge of his property, which not only took away any panoramic views Nicholas might have had, but also cloaked his home in perpetual semi-darkness.
Pooh Bear Revenge. The Chinese are famous for having a particular sensitivity to humiliation and the need to save face, but the costs can at times be catastrophic. In 2013, President Barack Obama visited China and was photographed walking across a lawn with Chinese Premiere Xi Jinping. Some internet troll found a picture of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger walking in the forest that looked similar to the photograph. Portly Xi and lanky Obama are walking with the exact gait as Pooh and Tigger. He placed the two pictures side by side and started circulating it. It rapidly spread across China, and was soon followed by more side-by-side pictures of Pooh and Xi. The Chinese government responded by banning Winnie the Pooh, and has made it illegal to search for or disseminate any images of Pooh.
Dead Oaks Revenge. There’s not much going on in Alabama, which is probably why Alabamians take their football so seriously. There are two major teams in Alabama, the University of Alabama Crimson Tide, and the Auburn University Tigers. Every year, they play each other in what’s known as the Iron Bowl, and it’s been going on since 1893. Things can get heated, and after an Auburn win in 2010 a 62-year-old irate fan decided to take revenge. He drove to Auburn, and poured gallons of concentrated weed killer all around two massive oak trees that are a beloved place for Auburn fans to celebrate their wins. He then called a local sports radio show and bragged of his exploits. That wasn’t a smart move. The trees died, he was hauled into court and fined close to a million dollars, and will spend the rest of his life paying it back. He also has to perform janitorial services for the local police station to cover the court costs.
Oh You’ll Sea Revenge. We saved the best for last. Xerxes I was the king of Persia from 486-465 BCE. He spent most of his life trying to conquer Greece and getting denied. In one of his military actions, he ordered his men to build a bridge across the Dardanelles Straits that separate Asia from Europe. The bridge was built but soon thereafter collapsed during a storm. Xerxes wanted to punish the water for wiping out his bridge, so he ordered his men to throw chains into the sea and lash the water with whips. Here’s where the history gets murky, but it seems that the sea immediately begged for forgiveness and promised to always be a good sea after that.
The Torah explicitly forbids revenge, as it says (Leviticus 19:18), “You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” The reason for this mitzvah is not so much that you shouldn’t make a fool of yourself in your blinding passion to hurt those who hurt you. Rather, explains as the classis 13th century anonymous text Sefer Hachinuch, is: “That the person should know and put to his heart that everything that happens to him, whether good or bad, is caused to happen to him by the Hashem Blessed Be He, and from the hand of one person to another nothing can happen without the will of Ha-shem. Therefore when someone hurts him or pains him he should know that it was his sins that caused it and that Ha-shem decreed it upon him. And he should not put his mind to revenge [what his friend did] because [his friend] is not the cause of his pain…
The author continues by bringing the example of a story that happened to King David. The king’s son Avshalom rebelled against his father, and King David was forced to flee Jerusalem in fear of his life. As the king and his retinue were nearing the city of Bachurim, a man named Shimie ben Gera came out and began throwing stones at them, and let loose a string of curses and rancor directed at the king himself. One of David’s loyal supporters said (Samuel II: 16:9): “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over, I beg you, and remove his head!” But instead of allowing his supporter to take vengeance for the insult, he responded: “So let him curse, because the Lord has surely said to him, ‘Curse David’, who then shall [have the right] to say, ‘Why have you done so’?”
King David was already having a bad month, a full out coup by his son had him on the lam. It is at times like this, when we are unsettled ourselves that we are most likely to seek revenge, trying to assert control over at least one area of our lives, yet, it was here that King David was still able to recognize that the pain in his life was being caused by G-d and that the curser was just a puppet delivering to him what G-d for whatever reason saw fit for him to experience.
For us, the ability to tie other people’s hurtful actions to something we are ordained to experience by Heaven can be absolutely transformative. We lose so much energy seething against people who said something hurtful to us, ignored our needs, or slighted us in some way, when in reality there was a decree in heaven that exactly that should happen to us, and the person who committed the offense was merely the vehicle. Of course this does not mean that we should become doormats who allow everyone to simply walk over us, we certainly can and should confront someone who is doing something hurtful to us, and tell them how hurtful we find their actions, but revenge is a different story. Revenge is what we seek to inflict when we think that a particular person did something to us that otherwise would not have happened.
One way we can help ourselves overcome the desire for revenge is to simply verbalize the same message that King David put so eloquently. Someone mocked us in shul in front of our friends? Say out loud “Ha-shem told Bob to hurt me.” Someone cut you off on the road? Exclaim loudly “Ha-shem told him to cut me off.” The sea tore down your bridge? Announce to your court, “Ha-shem told the sea to tear down my bridge.”
When something horrible happens to us as a people, more important than pointing fingers and assigning blame is the introspective question we must all ask ourselves. Why did this happen? What message is G-d sending us?
Indeed, quite apt is another famous phrase about revenge: “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha, we find Avraham trying to find a proper shidduch, a match, for his son, Yitzchak. Avraham’s trusted servant Eliezer is sent on this important mission. Soon after leaving, he meets Rivka, a girl from a good family who also happens to have the prerequisite character traits of kindness and humility that make her a prime candidate for the shidduch. She invites Eliezer to her home and he graciously accepts.
“ The man (Eliezer) came into the house and unmuzzled the camels. He gave the camels straw and fodder…Food was set before him,” (Gen 24:32-33) The commentators wonder
hy the Torah went out of its way to inform us that Eliezer fed his camels. Would we have thought that he starved his camels?
One answer is that this shows us that Eliezer was meticulous in a very important mitzvah that applies to many of us today. The Halacha says that a person is supposed to feed his animals before feeding himself. This is derived from a verse in the second paragraph of Shema “And I will provide grass in your field for your animals, and you will eat and be full.” (Deut 11:15). We see that G-d concerns Himself with providing for our animals first, and then for us. If we want to emulate G-d, we too must do the same. If we have a pet, we need to ensure that it is fed before we have our own meal.
The verses here regarding Eliezer indicate that he too followed this precept. It wasn’t enough for him to feed his animals, he needed to feed them before food was put before him. “He gave the camels straw and fodder…” and only after that “Food was set before him.”
Sensitivity to animals is not only a mitzvah, it is also a litmus test for Jewish leaders in many occasions. In this week we find that Eliezer devises a test to determine who would be a woman worthy of marrying Isaac. The test revolved around finding a girl who would not only be willing to give Eliezer a drink, but would be willing to water his thirsty camels as well. Moshe sees his vision of G-d in the burning bush while running after a stray lamb to lead it back home. King David is busy tending sheep when Samuel comes to anoint him as king of the Jewish people.
Displaying kindness to all of G-d’s creatures is the hallmark of someone who recognizes and respects their source. Let’s keep this important mitzvah in mind, and even if we don’t have a pet or any other animals, let’s learn from the Torah’s remarkable sensitivity to all creatures great and small!
This week’s Parsha begins with the passing of Sara, the first of the matriarchs. The Torah tells us about the difficulty that Avraham underwent trying to buy the proper burial place for his family. Avraham dealt with a person that would make a used car salesman look like a saint. The place was called Me’arat Hamachpela, where Adam and Eve were buried.. (Today, Adam and Eve, Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, and Jacob and Leah, are all buried there. You can still visit this holy site in Israel, although Arabs control Hebron where the Me’arat Hamachpela is located and you need a military escort.
Efron the Chiti, the owner of the aforementioned cave, pretends to want to give the field to Avraham for free, knowing that Avraham won’t take it. This prevents Avraham from bargaining when Efron says, “So let’s just get the deal over with. Here, just give me $40,000,000 which is nothing between friends, and you can go bury your deceased.” (The number wasn’t in USD; I’m using a little writer’s license.) Parenthetically, this was another challenge Avraham had to face, paying an exorbitant price for his wife’s burial place when G-d had promised him the entire land! Avraham pays the money without complaint, realizing that the proper burial place for the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish nation is priceless.
After burying Sara, Avraham immediately starts to work on finding a mate for his son. With the Akeida fresh in his mind, Avraham feels the urgency of continuing the line of his progeny and dispatches Eliezer to find a wife for his son. Avraham makes Eliezer swear before he leaves that he will make every attempt to find a wife from Avraham’s family and not from the Canaanites living in the land.
Eliezer asks G-d to help him in finding the proper girl. He even devises a challenge that he asks G-d to use as the litmus test to determine the future matriarch of the Jewish nation.
According to his plan, Eliezer would ask a number of girls for a drink as they drew water from the well for their families. The one that would say, “Not only will I give you a drink, but I will also water your camels,” would be the one to prove herself worthy of marrying Yitzchak.
Using this test, he quickly finds Rivkah, a daughter of Besuel, granddaughter of Avraham’s brother Haran . When Eliezer goes to meet the parents, he tells over the whole story of how he got there and the miracle of finding Rivka so quickly.
Rivka’s father and brother try to kill Eliezer so that they could steal the great wealth that he brought with him to give to the prospective bride. They put poison in Eliezer’s food but an angel miraculously switches the dishes, and Besuel, Rivka’s father, ends up dead instead. Lavan and his mother try to convince Rivka to stay but she declares that she wants to go with Eliezer to meet her future husband.
Rivka catches sight of her husband for the first time as he is returning from praying in the field and she is overwhelmed by his greatness. They soon marry and, as the Torah tells us, “Yitzchok brought her into the tent of his mother, Sarah. He married Rivkah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. Yitzchok was then consoled for the loss of his mother.” (Gen. 24:67) This shows us that the Torah’s view of love is something that comes after marriage, after one makes the ultimate commitment to a partner, not the infatuation people often feel and describe as “love at first sight” or “falling head over heels in love!”
The Torah then mentions some of the genealogy of Avraham, and Yishmael. It also describes the death of Avraham at the ripe old age of 175. He was buried with his wife in the Me’arat Hamachpela.
The Torah concludes the Parsha with a description of Yishmael’s genealogy, indicating that Avraham treated him as a true son, despite the fact that he had a child from his primary wife, Sara. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle. – Benyamin Franklin
Random Fact of the Week: Shakespeare’s works contain first-ever recordings of 2,035 English words, including critical, frugal, excellent, barefaced, assassination, and countless.
Funny Line of the Week: War does not determine who is right, only who is left.
Have an Insouciant Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham