The Virtue of Vengeance
Rabbi Reuven Mann
Parshas VaYeira, contains the account of the destruction of the wicked cities of Sodom and Amorah. As the Rambam explains in Hilchot Teshuva, Hashem judges nations as well as individuals, and if their sinfulness reaches a certain extent, they are sentenced for execution.
Rambam, proceeds to say, that the manner in which G-d makes His determination of innocence or guilt, are beyond man’s capacity to comprehend. Our grasp of the situation is superficial, and only Hashem can see the real nature of humans; and knows how to weigh the good against the evil. Still, it is important to pay careful attention to this Biblical portion, in order to glean whatever insights may emerge from careful study.
In Bereishis 18:20-21, Hashem says,
“Because the outcry of Sodom and Amorah has become great, and because their sin has been very grave. I will descend and see; if they act in accordance with its outcry which has come to me—then destruction! And if not, I will know.”
The Gemara in Sanhedrin 109a, discusses the matter. It explains–that the “outcry” of Sodom, which reached Hashem–was that of a young girl, who committed the “sin” of hiding bread in a pitcher, to secretly give it to a poor hungry stranger. When her “crime” was discovered, she was smeared with honey and placed upon a fence, to suffer a gruesome death, as the bees came and assaulted her. This, they say, was the outcry which Hashem heard.
The cities of Sodom and Amorah, were blessed with vast and abundant resources. However, this did not engender a sense of humbleness and gratitude. Nor any desire, to share their bounty with others. (This should be contrasted with the attitude of Moshe–who in anticipation of the journey to the promised land–beseeched his father-in-law Yitro, to join with the Jews; and partake with them, of the good that Hashem had promised them.)
The inhabitants of Sodom and Amorah, deemed themselves to be superior and were absolutely determined not to allow any strangers to partake of “their” riches. They were fearful that outsiders might be attracted to their territory, and partake of its wealth. They therefore, went to extreme degrees of cruelty, in order to discourage unwanted foreigners.
The Torah depicts Hashem as “descending” to the world, in order to determine if their sinfulness had reached the point of no return. The Rabbis illustrated the nature of the wickedness–with the story of the cruel punishment of a little girl–who out of compassion, had tried to give some bread to a needy stranger. The manner of death inflicted upon her, was especially gruesome and shocking. What does it mean?
Even cruel people, have certain limits. Most people, even fearsome ones, have an innate sympathy for little children and are averse to harming them. However, the sadism of Sodom was so great that it broke down all natural barriers to its expression–even against helpless children. The Sodomites, had uprooted all shreds of mercy from their psyches, and felt fully justified in their actions.
The Sodomites viewed all outsiders as evil, and any action as justified to prevent them from treading on their turf. They developed a belief system–which justified their conduct–and allowed no room for deviation; even for the benefit of an innocent little child. The kid had committed the worst “sin”, mercy for an outsider; and there could be no tolerance for this. So too, any German, who extended a helping hand to a Jew–even in the most trivial manner–could face death, for he had committed the ultimate crime.
Hashem saw that the wickedness had reach the point, where it was unlimited and fully rationalized; and He knew it was beyond rectification. This helps us to understand the horrible character of the Nazis. They had uprooted any vestige of compassion for Jews, and other imagined enemies–and subjected them to the most horrendous tortures imaginable–which they carried out with abundant glee.
The Nazis, like the Sodomites, had no compunctions about afflicting little children. Rabbi Soloveitchik points out, that they had a particular affinity for violence against Jewish infants. And they were so locked in to their treacherous ideology, that they could not be brought to recognize the corruption of their ways. Even the Nazis who were brought to justice, showed not a scintilla of remorse. They needed to be destroyed.
The Rabbis say, that vengeance is great; because the verse affirms that, “Hashem is a G-d of Nekama” (revenge). This was manifested in Hashem’s “retaliation” against Sodom. As the Torah states, in Bereishis 19:24-25:
“Now, Hashem had caused sulfur and fire to rain upon Sodom and Amorah, from Hashem out of Heaven. He overturned these cities and the entire plain, with all the inhabitants of the cities and the vegetation of the soil.”
In the punishment of Sodom, cruelty and mercy operated side-by-side. Compassion was extended to Lot, his wife and his children; all of whom were saved because of his merit. (Lot’s wife became caught up in the evil of Sodom, when she violated the angel’s injunction not to look back.) But the Wrath of G-d was poured out against the wicked cities and their inhabitants.
The prevailing contemporary attitudes toward punishment of the wicked, differ from those of the Torah. The notion of vengeance evokes negative connotations in the contemporary mindset. Indeed, we are commanded by the Torah, to not take revenge against those who offend us.
However, that prohibition applies with regard to personal insults and affronts. In those instances, we should not hate and seek to humiliate the offender, but to confront him in a calm manner and inform him of his trespass. If he acknowledges it and apologizes, we should accept it and forgive him.
However, the case of Sodom and the Nazis, is that of objective evil. When the wicked triumph, great suffering is brought upon untold innocents; and the Name of Hashem is desecrated.
The Torah points out for us, that Hashem intervenes, to bring justice to grievous sinners; who in their arrogance, practice extreme cruelty against innocent victims, including children. Whoever destroys them, effectuates a great salvation for mankind, and emulates the ways of Hashem. May we strive to fight the battle against the wicked individuals and nations, who seek to enslave mankind with their cruel and murderous ideologies. In doing so, we fulfill a significant aspect of the mission of the Jewish People.