Va-Era: Revenge: Dig Two Graves

The first seven plagues upon Egypt are recounted in this week’s Torah portion, Va-Era.   The seventh plague is a hail storm so destructive that it “struck down all that were in the open, both man and beast; the hail also struck down all the grasses of the field and shattered all the trees of the field.” (Exodus 9:25).   A few verses later, though, we learn that “the flax and barley were ruined, for the barley was in the ear and flax was in bud; but the wheat and the emmer were not hurt, for they ripen late.”  (Exodus 9:31-32).

But if the hail was as devastating as described, including fire in the hailstones, why wouldn’t it have utterly destroyed all plant life, even what had not yet ripened?  Wouldn’t that also have been an even stronger demonstration of G-d’s power, the purpose of the plagues?

A midrash (Yad Yosef) cited in the Etz Hayim commentary offers a fascinating explanation as to why the destruction wasn’t complete.  The wheat and the emmer were not destroyed in order to teach the lesson that one should always leave an adversary with enough to live on, rather than leave that person with nothing to lose.   

It’s a powerful and extremely important lesson.  Lincoln intended to implement a policy of reconciliation, both for mercy’s sake and for pragmatic self-interest. His assassination was a national tragedy for many reasons, including opening the way for retribution against the defeated, devastated South.  Hitler garnered political support from Germans bitterly resentful of reparations exacted by World War I’s victors.   Conversely, the United States restored rather than punished Germany and Japan after World War II, and those nations are now our friends.

The lesson of magnanimity certainly applies in our personal relationships, too.  When events prove our predictions right, any self-righteous “I told you so” will likely only bring smoldering resentment … and smoldering ashes can erupt into flames.  Insisting upon collecting everything we feel we are owed, leaving the debtor damaged and vulnerable, may breed desperate acts against us or others. Proving others wrong, repaying slights, ruining reputations, getting people fired, or putting competitors out of business may feel good (“he who laughs last, laughs best”) but, in retrospect, may turn out to be wasted time … or worse.  Confucius is credited with the adage: “When you set out on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” The pursuit of revenge is so destructive, that it will inevitably consume us in the process.

In the Torah portion, when, at G-d’s direction, Moses and Aaron called forth the frog infestation, Egyptian magicians didn’t try to reverse it; they merely showed Pharaoh that they could do the same.  (Exodus 8:3).  But their “turnabout is fair play” policy only made matters worse.  More frogs … and even worse plagues!   Revenge often works that way, too.  Stopping ourselves from seeking it is harder than payback, but it’s ultimately more productive, in addition to being the right thing to so. 

Judaism teaches us to strive to be holy.  This means emulated G-d, and that means tempering justice with mercy. 

Shabbat shalom from (drippy, soggy, snow-melting) Jerusalem. 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb