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Thoughts about Vengeance in the Wake of October 7

Karen Engel is a final year rabbinical student at Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam. She studied with Rabbi Brian, and they remain close friends. Rabbi Brian obtained her permission to share this inspiring text.

There’s a prayer in the Pesach Haggadah, after grace, the Birkat Hamazon, and the opening of the door to Eliyah, called שְׁפֹךְ חֲמָתְךָ shfokh chamatkha, or “Pour out your wrath.” In the Koren translation it reads:

POUR OUT Your rage upon the nations that do not know You, and on regimes that have not called upon Your name.

For Jacob is devoured, they have laid his places waste. Pour out Your great anger upon them, and let Your blazing fury overtake them. Pursue them in Your fury and destroy them from under the heavens of the Lord.

Before October 2023, I had always found this text disturbing and I did not include it in the seders I hosted. I wished no ill on those who were not Jewish or simply did not believe in God, and I was not alone. Many other rabbis found this text questionable, or even morally wrong.[1] But now I view this prayer differently. It wasn’t aimed at atheists or agnostics, or those of other religions, but against religious fanatics. Not part of the original Haggadah, this text was added in the 11th century after the First Crusade, when the Crusaders massacred Jewish communities in Worms, Speyer and Mainz on their way to the Holy Land.[2] The words come from Psalm 79:6-7, (Jeremiah 10:25) Psalm 69:25 and Lamentations 3:66.

Now, post-October 7, as we still grapple with the shocking, horrifying brutality of the Hamas massacres these words seem even mild. But importantly there are no calls for human vengeance. It is God who should show his fury. The 17th century Polish scholar Naftali Seva Ratzon explained that we ask God to destroy our enemies because we cannot do it ourselves.[3] Many would argue though today things are different. The State of Israel can defend itself, and President Benjamin Netanyahu has sworn to destroy Hamas.

And yet, I think there is great validity in expressing a prayer of wrath, and then leaving the vengeance to God. To pour out your rage is to name and express your fury and utter despair in the face of inconceivable brutality, murder and death. This must be acknowledged. But human vengeance is not the answer. We need to pour out our rage and then get back to the much harder work of redeeming the hostages, putting our lives together, and finding rational, workable, realistic, and fair solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Some of the words that had the most profound effect on me recently came from Rachel Goldberg-Polen, the mother of Hersch Goldberg-Polen who was taken as a hostage after a grenade tore off his left arm. Speaking before the United Nations Goldberg-Polen said: “When you only get outraged when one side’s babies are killed, then your moral compass is broken, and your humanity is broken. And therefore, in your quiet moments alone, all of us, everywhere on planet earth need to really ask ourselves, do I aspire to be human, or am I swept up in the enticing, and delicious world of hatred? … Hatred is easy. But hatred is not actually helpful, nor is it constructive … We human beings have been blessed with the gifts of intellect, creativity, insight, and perception. Why are we not using it to solve global conflicts all over the world? Because doing this is hard and it takes fortitude, imagination, grit, risk, and hope. So instead, we opt for hatred because hatred is so comfortable, so familiar, and so very, very easy.”

A few days ago, I listened into a Zoom meeting between settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank who are trying to curtail the violence there. Since the war, their work has become even more difficult as settlers attack with abandon Palestinians harvesting olives from their orchards, as Hamas attacked Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint, and as Palestinians watch helplessly as their relatives in Gaza suffer the gruelling onslaught of missiles and the destruction of their homes, the death and injury of their families. As one activist sadly remarked “at the moment we can do nothing but listen.”

Listening though, is a beginning. The central prayer in Judaism, Shema Israel, commands us to listen. The prophet Isaiah (50:4) tells us that it is through listening that he learned to speak wisely:

אֲדֹנָ֣י יֱהֹוִ֗ה נָ֤תַן לִי֙ לְשׁ֣וֹן לִמּוּדִ֔ים לָדַ֛עַת לָע֥וּת אֶת־יָעֵ֖ף דָּבָ֑ר יָעִ֣יר בַּבֹּ֣קֶר בַּבֹּ֗קֶר יָעִ֥יר לִי֙ אֹ֔זֶן לִשְׁמֹ֖עַ כַּלִּמּוּדִֽים׃ The Lord God has given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to sustain him that is weary: he wakens morning by morning, he wakens my ear to hear as the learned.”[4]

Deep and concentrated listening is the foundational step of conflict resolution.[5] But we are not doing much of it. Maybe because we are afraid, and we are still in mourning. But I pray that even as we watch others become swept up into the enticing world of hatred, that we do not lose our minds, nor close our ears to others.

[1] [2] Jonathan Sacks Haggadah [3] [4] Translation from the Koren Jerusalem Bible [5] See for example the work of the Compassionate Listening Project:

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