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    Revenge & the Purim story – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. The Torah warns us against being vengeful (Lev. 19:18). Doesn’t the Purim story contradict this?

    Haman on the gallows, by Arthur Szyk, 1950

    Haman on the gallows, by Arthur Szyk, 1950

    A. The Megillah begins with King Achashverosh being annoyed with his wife and removing her from office, but whatever one thinks of his action it isn’t really vengeance but punishment. Likewise, Haman is livid at Mordechai and shows it, but again it isn’t really vengeance but castigation.

    Yet what can we say when we see the Jews of Persia wanting to eradicate Haman the descendant of Amalek, apparently taking the Torah literally when it commands the extirpation of the Amalekites because they had sought to destroy Israel (Ex. 17:8-16, Deut. 25:17-19)?

    It is possible that Judaism is making a special case of the Amalekites, saying that though vengeance in general is not permitted, the Amalek-spirit is so dangerous that it must be thoroughly wiped out even if it sounds like vengeance.

    This conclusion is not just academic, but raises the question of the appropriate attitude towards the perpetrators of the Holocaust. The memorial prayers for the six million martyrs often refer to God avenging the blood of the k’doshim.

    Again the message may well be that some enemies are so totally evil that vengeance is justified, though it must be pointed out that the Holocaust memorial prayers do not speak of us as human beings exacting vengeance but God doing it, in line with the Biblical verse, Li nakam v’shillem – “Vengeance is Mine and I will repay” (Deut. 32:35).

    There seems to be a tension, a tug-of-war, between the two attitudes to vengeance, which is why Yeshayayu Leibowitz regarded this as the most difficult part of the Bible.

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