Question. On the wall of a house in Israel where an Arab baby and his father were killed and members of the family badly injured, someone scrawled “N’kamah” – “Vengeance!” What is the Jewish perspective on acts of vengeance?
Answer. The Jewish principle is “Li nakam v’shillem” – “‘Vengeance is Mine, and I will pay back’, says the Lord” (Deut. 32:35). The Targum Onkelos changes the word “vengeance” to “punishment”, which indicates that if human beings do something wrong, God will not leave them unpunished. We don’t know when and how, but He knows what He has to do.
Over the course of history, there were, tragically, countless times when human beings were heartless, not only in a universal sense of one individual against another, but in terms of how one nation behaved towards another. This was especially the case with other nations mistreating the Jewish people.
Our enemies hurt us so often and so badly that there was an understandable desire for retribution. But we were urged by the Torah not to carry out any act of vengeance and not even to think of it:
“Do not take revenge or bear a grudge” (Lev. 19:18),
we were admonished;
“When your enemy falls, do not rejoice” (Prov. 24:17).
How then are we meant to handle an enemy? When he is hungry, says the Bible, give him food; when he is thirsty, give him drink! (Prov. 25:21). In other words, help an enemy and aspire to eventually make him into a friend (BM Tosefta 2:26). Not easy advice, terribly idealistic, but unambiguous. If any punishment is due, let it come from God!
This doesn’t mean that crimes should go unpunished by the law, but that from a moral point of view the best approach is to hope that – with our help – evil deeds will vanish.
If we are to go down in history and in God’s books as people who suffered, let our record be that we restrained our vengeful instincts and tried to behave with dignity and compassion at all times. Even when it hardest to do so, that’s when we have to say,
“God knows what He has to do; as for us human beings, our task is to be like B’ruriah the wife of Rabbi Me’ir and say, ‘Let sins disappear from the earth, and then sinners will be no more’ (Psalm 104:35)” (B’rachot 10a).
In Israel there is, unfortunately, an insidious movement that has the slogan, “Tag Mechir” – “Price Tag!” and scrawl it on the walls that mark their acts.
Those who believe in a different approach have the slogan, “Tag Me’ir” – “Light-giving Tag”. Where they got the words “Tag Me’ir” I don’t know, but to me it is suggested by the wife of Rabbi Me’ir.
Question. Why do Christians, but not Jews, call God “Jehovah”?
Answer. In the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) the authentic name of God is spelt Y-H-V-H. The text has no vowels, only consonants. It seems certain that the name derives from the root H-V-H, “to be”, and points to the uniqueness of God’s being.
In ancient Israel the name was pronounced only on the Day of Atonement and only by the high priest, and the correct pronunciation was not known to the people as a whole. When the Temple ritual was suspended nearly two thousand years ago, the secret was lost for ever (unless the Almighty chooses to reveal it again). No-one can therefore be certain how to vocalise the name, and no-one is entitled to guess.
Hebrew grammar would allow for at least two possibilities – a vocalisation that would indicate “He who is”, or one that would denote “He that causes (all) to be”.
Christian tradition was quite ungrammatical in using the form Jehovah. No such pronunciation fits in with any of the rules of Hebrew. What happened was that Jews piously substituted for the name Y-H-V-H the title AD-ON-AI, “My Lord”. They could not remove the original consonants of the name from the Scriptures, but when printed or handwritten books began to insert vowel points in the texts as an aid to reading, they added the vowels of the substitute title to the original name as a sort of coded clue to help the reader.
The word therefore looked something like Jehovah, but no Jew or Hebrew scholar would ever read it as such.