The truth is, it depends. The Torah, for example, says that if a person kills someone accidentally, the blood of the victim shall be avenged (Shmot 21:20).
Chapter 19 in Devarim discusses the rules surrounding the accidental murder and the need for the perpetrator to run to a city of refuge before the avenging relative will deliver unprosecutable vigilante justice against his relative’s killer. A good portion of tractate Makkot is dedicated to these discussions.
Vayikra 19:18, famous for its Golden Rule of loving your neighbor, actually begins with the phrase, “Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the children of your people.”
Parshat Matot, chapter 31 begins with G-d telling Moshe, “Take revenge for the Israelites against the Midianites.” This is the prelude to the annihilation war against Midian, the nation responsible for bringing upon Israel a plague that took the lives of 24,000 people.
In the Vayikra passage, the midrash and many commentaries describe the frowned upon revenge as being of the type which is just spiteful and mean — you didn’t lend me something, so I won’t lend you a different item; you were stingy, so I’ll be stingy back.
On the other hand, the cases of revenge that seem to be sanctioned by the Torah, or at the very least not stopped outright, are when the side seeking vengeance, either a relative or the entire nation of Israel, suffered a loss or many losses at the hands of the target, the erstwhile perpetrator.
And so the propriety of revenge becomes a question of what happened, and what is the benefit of said revenge.
On a personal level, I have very little qualms about revenge or vengeance being taken out against murderers. Last week’s terrorist attack against Israeli police officers on the Temple Mount ended when the perpetrators were killed. Any terrorist who engages in such a cowardly assault, attacking or aiming to murder people who mean them no harm and who are not a threat to them, whether they are successful in harming their intended victim or not, should be met with immediate vengeance while they are engaged in the attack. (If they desist and it’s possible to safely arrest them, we can have a different conversation.)
Most normal people do not have any issue with taking a life in defense of self or in defense of others. If it boils down to the question of whose life is more important, the murderer or would-be murderer who engages first loses such rights.
We live in a society that functions under the rule of law. In some cases, the law is clear; in others, it’s a little spotty. I remember thinking, as I read John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill,” that Carl Lee Hailey had every right to kill the men who had destroyed his ten-year old daughter’s life, even though they were in a form of custody at the time of his vengeance killing.
There were assassination teams that hunted down Nazis after World War II ended. The terrorists responsible for the Munich murders were hunted down. Is this justifiable? I hear both sides — but I don’t think any of these people would have submitted freely if confronted with an arrest warrant.
So where do we fit on the revenge scale today?
This question came home to me this week because of a unique experience I had. On Friday, my sister shared with me an incredible photo she had seen on Facebook, of an older man serving as sandak at his great-grandson’s bris. The picture is quite amazing, perfectly angled and focused on the baby’s perfectly shaped head, underneath which is the shortsleeved arm of the sandak, with the number A-7790 visibly tattooed.
The story behind the photo is no less incredible, as the sandak, a little over 70 years ago, held his brother Akiva in his arms as Akiva died on their way to Auschwitz. And now, in 2017, saba Zev Berkovitch held his great-grandson, named for the boy who died so long ago, this time for life in the land of the Jewish people.
I posted the photo on my mohel Facebook page, and within three days it was seen by over 160,000 people, shared over 700 times, garnering all the requisite clicks, likes and comments that define something which has “gone viral.”
Many of the comments spoke of how “this is our revenge against Hitler.” And, I guess to a large degree, that is correct. By and large, Nazism is a criminal offense, or at least viewed as bigoted lunacy in most of the civilized world. And we, the Jewish people, go about our business. We live, we raise families, we teach our children, and we value and celebrate life at every turn.
When we think about what Saba Zev and his generation went through, victims of an ideology hell-bent on murder, devastation and destruction, and we look at how we have survived and built the lives we live, focused on building and progress and supporting our heritage, we see how this is the greatest kind of revenge.