Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20)The Revenge Paradox

Do not take revenge… (Leviticus 19:18)The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when their tormentors suffer.  (Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption)Which one of us hasn’t had inner thoughts of vengeance at some point in life? Whether is it the coworker who stole our idea and took credit for it or something worse, we want justice. But will taking revenge give us peace of mind? Three psychology professors decided to get a research-based answer to this question. They “hypothesized that people believe that punishing an offender will improve their mood and bring about psychological closure, but in fact punishment will increase rumination about the offender and lead to a continuation of negative affect”. (The Paradoxical Consequences of Revenge, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008)    A group investment game with college students was set up where if everyone cooperated, they would benefit equally. However, if someone refused to invest his or her money, that person would benefit at the group’s expense.                                               A secret experimenter (called a free rider) in each group convinced the group members to invest equally. But when it came time to put up the money, the free riders didn’t go along with the agreed-upon plan. As a result, the free riders earned an average of $5.59, while the other players earned around $2.51.Here’s the revenge part. Some groups were offered a way to get back at the free rider: They could spend some of their own earnings to financially punish the group’s defector. Everyone who was given the chance for revenge took it. And they predicted that they would feel much better after they got their revenge.The results showed that the students who got revenge reported feeling worse than those who didn’t; but believed they would have felt even worse if they hadn’t gotten back at the free riders. The students who didn’t get the opportunity for revenge said they thought they would feel better if they’d had that opportunity, even though the survey results identified them as the happier group. Both groups thought revenge would be sweet, but their own reported feelings showed that revenge made them less happy.Why doesn’t revenge give us the sense of closure we crave? Before answering, let’s look into the reason for this mitzvah. It would be easy to say that the purpose of not taking revenge is to encourage peace among people, but Sefer HaChinuch (13thcentury Spain, author unknown) says something different. He attributes it to helping us understand that G-d is in control. When bad things happen, whom should we blame? It’s easy to say that the other person is at fault, and (s)he might be, but it’s really G-d who allowed it to happen. When someone wrongs me and I take revenge, I am denying G-d’s involvement in my life. If He runs the world, and everything comes from Him, I will realize that the person who harmed me was merely an agent; why should I seek to hurt him? Even though he was wrong, that’s not my problem to solve. (This doesn’t mean we should be passive and allow people to take advantage of us; we need to protect ourselves-but that’s not revenge). When I seek revenge, I give power to the person who wronged me. That is a misunderstanding of the way the Almighty runs the world and controls my fate. A person might drive while drunk but who or what he hits is no coincidence.This is a hard concept to digest because it means G-d is with me 24/7 and has a plan for my life. Part of that plan is that no person, animal, or anything else can harm me unless G-d has decreed it. I might not know why this happened to me or someone I love but one thing is for sure, it had a purpose.  On a practical level it means that no human being determines my fate. If I am supposed to be wealthy or be honored, you can’t take that from me.In every generation they try to destroy us but G-d protects us is the familiar acknowledgement we make every year at the Passover Seder. There is no way to explain the miraculous survival of the Jewish people and there is no way to explain why certain things happen in our lives.The concept of trusting that G-d is in control and has plan, is a challenge for many but in life you will place your trust in something, so what will it be? Will you trust your fate in humans? G-d didn’t plan and implement Auschwitz, Hitler did. Stalin, not G-d, killed close to 6,000,000 people in the Ukrainian Red Famine. Whom will you trust? Think of the number of scandals in the past few years; people are motivated by their vested interests and have the capacity to throw a friend or company under the bus if it works for them.The next time you are thinking of taking revenge, stop for a moment and think. When a group of Navy Seals gets dropped by helicopter during a storm into the ocean and are told to make their way back with little resources, do they say, “this isn’t fair. Why did it have to happen to us? How are we supposed to do this?” They realize that this is part of a carefully calculated training to bring out potential they never realized they had and prepare them for situations they can’t even conceive of. So, too, when something unpleasant happens to us, we have to realize that whatever person, object, or creature harmed us, it is part of a plan. We might not know what the plan is, but it is carefully calculated and designed especially for us. Instead of damming your fate, embrace the encouraging message that a loving and powerful G-d has great things in store for you and this challenge is going to get you there. We all hope that coronavirus will end asap due to the physical, emotional, and financial havoc it wreaks in our lives. That being said, it has been heartening to read and personally witness accounts of children who feel they are finally able to spend time and get attention from their parents, and even parents who are savoring family time with their young adult children who are home from college. Some parents are rethinking what their priorities are and what gives their life purpose. Some people have learned that everything they believed in-their profession, job or business-was demolished in a moment. It took an event of this magnitude for them to rethink their lives and what they trust (Even doctors and health care workers, the people thought to have the greatest job security during a medical crisis, have been furloughed.) However, this clarity and new attitude doesn’t have to come from a pandemic, it is available to us regularly from the mitzvah we have been discussing.The next time someone does something unpleasant to you, instead of taking revenge and, consequently, placing your happiness and fate in a human, remember that G-d has something special in mind for you. It’s a mission only you-no one else-can accomplish. Embrace it and feel the serenity of knowing that this is another opportunity for your unique soul to flourish. Good Shabbos   (Sources: Sefer HaChinuch 241; Chovos HaLevovos, Sha’ar HaBitachon 3)
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 Good Shabbos
Rabbi Oppenheim
Charlotte Torah Center