Every trait, without exception, has the potential to cause either a sanctification of God's Name or a desecration of God's Name depending upon the circumstances in which, and the motivation with which, it is exercised. So it is with the trait of Revenge. That Revenge can be a holy trait is clear.

As the Hebrew Bible declares:

"HaShem is a Zealous and Vengeful God; HaShem is Vengeful and full of Wrath; HaShem is Vengeful to His adversaries and reserves Hostility for His enemies. HaShem is slow to Anger, but He has great Power and He will not absolve [Evil]." (Nahum 1:2-3); and

"The righteous man shall rejoice when he sees Vengeance. He shall wash his feet in the blood of the Wicked. And Mankind shall say, 'Truly there is a reward for the Righteous. Truly there is a God Who judges on Earth.'" (Psalms 58:11-12)

Furthermore, as is demonstrated with respect to the foreordained Egyptian Exile, although Exodus-era Egypt is merely fulfilling a role assigned to it by the God of Israel (see Genesis 15:13-16), the Creator of Morality purposefully strengthens the resolve of Egypt's evil Pharaoh only so that He may exercise a horrific Vengeance against that nation as punishment for its enslavement of the Jewish people.

As the Torah relates:

"HaShem said to Moses, 'When you go to return to Egypt, see all the Wonders that I have put in your hand, and perform them before Pharaoh; but I shall strengthen his heart and he will not send out the people. You shall say to Pharaoh, "So said HaShem, 'My Firstborn Son is Israel. So I say to you: Send out My Son that he may serve Me, but you have refused to send him out; behold! -- I shall kill your firstborn son.'"'" (Exodus 4:21-23)

Moreover, God commands that Israel take revenge upon its enemies, which, by definition, also constitute God's enemies. As the Torah relates:

"HaShem spoke to Moses, saying, 'Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites ...'", but: "Moses spoke to the people, saying, '... inflict HaShem's Vengeance against Midian.'" (Numbers 31:2-3)

In fact, God even demands that the gentile nations praise the Jewish people on account of the Vengeance to which these nations will be subjected during the End of Days. As the Hebrew Bible relates:

"O nations: Sing the praises of His People, for He will avenge the blood of His Servants; He will bring retribution upon His adversaries, and He will appease His Land [and] His People." (Deuteronomy 32:43)

Finally, prophesying about the End of Days, the Prophet Isaiah, describing the Vengeance that God will wreak upon the nations who have persecuted the Jewish people, declares:

"He donned Righteousness like armor and a helmet of Salvation on His Head; and He donned garments of Vengeance as His Attire and clothed Himself in Zealousness like a coat. Just as there were [previous] Retributions [against His enemies], so shall He [now] repay Wrath to His enemies, Retribution to His adversaries; He will pay Retribution [even] to the distant lands. From the West they will fear the Name of HaShem, and from the rising of the sun [they will fear] His Glory; for [their] travail will come like a river; the Spirit of HaShem will gnaw at them." (Isaiah 59:17-19)

That being said, the issue is always one of proper discernment. A Jewish leader must be able distinguish between those situations which require mercy and forgiveness and those which require harshness and vengeance. This is no easy task as can be seen from the vantage point of one of the most perplexing incidents in the Torah, namely, the massacre in the City of Shechem (see Genesis 34:1-31). On the surface, Scripture appears to adopt a neutral or, at least, an ambiguous attitude towards this incident, with Jacob stridently condemning it, and Simeon and Levi just as stridently defending it, after which the text abruptly proceeds to different incident. But a closer examination reveals that such is not actually the case.

To summarize:

Shechem, son of King Chamor and Prince of the City of Shechem (the site of modern-day Nablus), kidnapped and raped Dina, Jacob's daughter. Prince Shechem then fell in love with her and persuaded his father Chamor to negotiate a marriage contract for her with Jacob. Jacob's sons, in an act of revenge, tricked all of the adult males of the City, including King Chamor and Prince Shechem, into circumcising themselves on the pretext that Dina would then become Prince Shechem's wife and the Jewish nation would thereafter freely intermarry with the Shechemites until they became one people. However, on the third day after the mass circumcision, when the Shechemites' pain was the greatest, Simeon and Levi slaughtered all of the adult men of the city and freed Dina from Prince Shechem's house. They then captured the city's women and children, confiscated all of the people's possessions, and departed. At first glance, it appears that Prince Shechem repented of his crime by offering to make Dina his Princess, and that the entire adult male population of Shechem furthered this effort by agreeing to accept circumcision, thereby entitling the City to obtain mercy and forgiveness from Jacob's family. And, at first glance, it appears that Simeon and Levi responded to this repentance by breaking God's Prohibitions against murder and theft (see Exodus 20:12; and Deuteronomy 5:16).

However, a closer examination is warranted. The Torah relates that:

"Jacob's sons arrived from the field when they heard [about the situation]; the men were distressed and were fired deeply with indignation, for he [Prince Shechem] had perpetrated an outrage in Israel by lying with the daughter of Jacob -- such a thing may not be done!" (Genesis 34:7)

It is noteworthy that the Torah here employs the phrase "outrage in Israel" while the verse otherwise refers to "Jacob".  It is contextually relevant that God had earlier changed Jacob's name to "Israel" after Jacob's confrontation with an Angel on the east bank of the Jordan River. As the Torah relates:

"He [the Angel] said, 'No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with the Divine and with Man, and have overcome.'" (Genesis 32:29)

After the massacre, God reaffirmed this transformation:

"Then God said to him, 'Your name is Jacob. Your name shall not always be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.' Thus, He called his name Israel." (Genesis 35:10)

Clearly then, Scripture is making a distinction between (a) the individual known as Jacob, who is the father of Dina, and (b) the embryonic nation of Israel, which is named after and led by Jacob. As the text reveals through its employment of the phrase "outrage in Israel", from the Perspective of God, Prince Shechem's crime was directed, neither against Dina nor against her father Jacob, as individuals, but rather against the embryonic nation of Israel and, by extension, against God Himself, as the Protector of that embryonic nation. This created a situation of national Chillul Hashem requiring the embryonic nation of Israel to take immediate revenge against the City of Shechem in order to blot out that Chillul HaShem and thereby replace it with a national Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of God's Name).

This is similar to the later Exodus era revenge that God would order the Israelites to take against the nation of Midian, resulting in the killing of the entire population (save for prepubescent women) as Punishment for luring Israel into idol worship and thereby creating a national Chillul Hashem (see Numbers 25:16-18 & 31:1-20). This latter event explicitly established the principle that Israel's enemies are God's enemies, for:

"HaShem spoke to Moses, saying, 'Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites ...'", but: "Moses spoke to the people, saying, '... inflict HaShem's Vengeance against Midian.'" (Numbers 31:2-3)

Upon learning of the massacre, Jacob stridently rebuked Simeon and Levi.  As the Torah relates:

"Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, 'You have gotten me into trouble, and you have caused me to be repulsive to the Canaanites and Perrizites who live in the Land. I am few in number, and should they band together and attack me, I will be annihilated -- I and my household.'" (Genesis 34:30)

Please note carefully Jacob's exact words. He does not question the morality of his sons' actions, but only its practical consequences, namely, the fact that it might cause the surrounding nations to retaliate against him and his family. The censure of his sons was due to his mistaken belief that the doctrine of Pikuach Nefesh (avoidance of danger to life) excused the nation of Israel from exacting immediate revenge in response to the Chillul Hashem committed by Prince Shechem. But his sons' next words silenced him, and these are the last human words recorded by the Torah on this subject:

"And they [his sons] said, 'Should anyone be permitted to treat our sister like a prostitute? '" (Genesis 34:31)

Jacob's silence in the face of his sons' harsh response indicated his acknowledgment that their moral position was indeed correct.

Shortly thereafter we learn that:

"They [Jacob and his family] set out, and there fell a Godly Terror on the surrounding cities, so that they [the inhabitants of the surrounding cities] did not pursue Jacob's sons." (Genesis 35:5)

By extending His Divine Protection to Jacob's sons, God Himself had the Last Word.  The brothers' attack on the Shechemites was thereby justified and sanctified (notwithstanding the fact that -- as will be later demonstrated -- the brothers' motivation was impure). However, this is not the only evidence of Divine Ratification of the brothers' actions.  For, generations later, the tribe of Simeon was permitted to proudly display a picture of the City of Shechem on its tribal flag (see Numbers 2:2; Bamidbar Rabbah 2:7) -- something that God would never have permitted if the incident was a badge of shame rather than a badge of honor.  And the tribe of Levi became, inter alia, the tribe which (a) produces Moses, (b) is appointed as protector of the Ark of the Covenant, and (c) becomes the source, through Aaron, of the priestly line.

All of this, however, does not explain why the entire adult male population of the City of Shechem -- rather than only Prince Shechem (and, perhaps, his father, King Chamor) -- was deserving of death. Rambam (being the acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, b. 1135 - d. 1204), in viewing the City of Shechem as a collection of individual citizens with individual responsibilities, opines that:

"All the residents of [the City of] Shechem incurred a death sentence because [Prince] Shechem stole, and they saw and knew, yet did not put him on trial" (Hilchot Melachim 9:14),

while Ramban (being the acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, also known as Nachmanides, b. 1194 - d. 1270), in viewing the City as a single social unit with a collective responsibility, opines that:

"They [Simeon and Levi] killed the king and all the people of his City because the latter were his servants and under his charge." (Ramban on Genesis 34:13).

Both views represent the Torah concept of Collective Punishment -- that is, the idea that ordinary people justly suffer the Divine Consequences of their leadership's conduct.

This concept of Collective Punishment will again be demonstrated in the Torah when God imposes upon Pharaonic Egypt ten awful plagues, including the final one which strikes down all of the firstborn of Egypt "...from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon..." (Exodus 12:29). Why were the imprisoned of Egypt, of all people, morally culpable for the crimes of their jailer, Pharaoh, against the Jewish people? They were a group with negligible influence upon Egyptian society, in general, and upon Pharaoh, in particular; and they were certainly not a group that was itself responsible for the enslavement of the Hebrews. However, like the Shechemites before them, all of Egypt (both law abiders and prisoners) were part and parcel of a society whose leader committed great Evil against the people of Israel and, therefore, against the God of Israel. Instead of protesting or leaving (while they were still able to do so), these citizens elected to stay and enjoy the fruits of that society while supplying its leadership with the taxes, military conscripts, civilian workforce, agricultural produce, and moral support which facilitated the perpetuation of the latter's evil conduct towards the Jewish people. For this, and this alone, God decreed that all such individuals were subject to Collective Punishment, despite their wildly varying degrees of complicity (whether direct or indirect) in the Sins of their leadership.

However, doesn't the earlier confrontation that Jacob's grandfather, Abraham, had initiated with God over the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah prove just the opposite, namely, that Collective Punishment is immoral? When God informed Abraham (who habitually exhibited mercy and kindness towards kin and stranger alike) that He intended to destroy the Cities of the Jordan River plain, Abraham sternly admonished Him:

"'Will You also stamp out the Righteous along with the Wicked? What if there should be fifty righteous people in the midst of the city? Would You still stamp it out rather than spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it? It would be Sacrilege to You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the Righteous along with the Wicked; so the Righteous will be like the Wicked. It would be Sacrilege to You! Shall the Judge of all the Earth not do Justice?'" (Genesis 18:23-25)

Abraham argued that Collective Punishment was immoral because it had the effect of treating the Righteous as if they were Wicked, thereby causing the gentile nations to perceive that God, Master of Justice, was indifferent to the plight of the Righteous.  Indeed, Abraham’s moral argument that the Righteous should not be punished for the Sins of the Wicked would seem not to be susceptible to refutation. Yet, merciful Abraham was unable to limit himself to a moral request that was consistent with his moral argument that it would be unjust to punish the Righteous, namely, a moral request that God spare only the Righteous (presumably by extracting them from the doomed Cities prior to His Destruction thereof) and thereby punish only the Wicked. Instead, Abraham utilized his moral argument that it would be unjust to punish the Righteous as a springboard to make a very different -- and immoral -- request, namely, a request that God spare the Wicked as well as the Righteous.  Abraham thereby committed the Sin of False Moral Equivalency (namely, the Sin of treating the Wicked as if they merited the same Beneficence as the Righteous).  Moreover, he also acted hypocritically towards God; for, he accused God of planning to do the very thing that he himself now sought to accomplish, namely, securing the same Fate for the Wicked and the Righteous.  Specifically, at the very same time that Abraham criticized God for planning to treat the Righteous as if they were Wicked, he demanded that God treat the Wicked as if they were Righteous. And, remarkably, God appeared to immediately concede the validity of Abraham's Moral Equivalency argument, by responding:

"'If I find in Sodom fifty righteous people in the midst of the city, then I would spare the entire place on their account.'" (Genesis 18:26)

But, again, a closer look is in order. Although God eventually agrees that, even for the sake of a mere ten righteous citizens interspersed among the wicked population of these cities, He will spare the two cities, this major concession does not have any effect whatsoever upon God's original Intentions -- the cities are still utterly destroyed. How can this be? Could not even ten righteous residents be found within all of Sodom and Gomorrah? The answer is in the negative -- and for the same reason that the "Righteous" among the Egyptians and Shechemites were not spared their respective Collective Punishments. If there were a number of truly righteous people among the population of these doomed Cities, then they would have rebelled against, or at least fled from, their evil societies. By continuing to reside within -- and participate in the daily life of -- these societies, these "righteous" people passively ratified the Evil perpetrated by their leaderships, and could not thereafter be considered by God to be righteous -- that is why God's great Concession did not have any effect whatsoever upon God's original Intention -- the Cities were still utterly destroyed. Although Abraham was, indeed, questioning the Morality of Collective Punishment, God, the Great Educator, is teaching to him and to us -- his descendants -- a profound lesson, namely, that Collective Punishment, when warranted, is, in fact, the embodiment of Divine Justice. To argue otherwise is to succumb to the false morality of the nations and to thereby rebel, in our arrogance, against God's Morality. As the Prophet Isaiah, speaking in God's Name, declares concerning God's Morality:

"For, My Thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My Ways -- the Word of HaShem. As high as the Heavens are above the Earth, so are My Ways high above your ways, and My Thoughts [high] above your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9)

That, in order to avoid death and destruction, righteous persons are required to separate themselves from the evil societies in which they dwell is proven by reference to the plight of the Kenites during King Saul’s war of annihilation against the Amalekites.  As the Hebrew Bible relates:

"Saul came to the City of Amalek, and he fought [against them] in the valley.  Saul said to the Kenite, 'Go, withdraw, descend from among the Amalekite, lest I destroy you with them; for, you acted kindly to all of the Children of Israel when they went up from Egypt' -- so, the Kenite withdrew from among Amalek." (I Samuel 15:5-6)

God's exemption of unrighteous Lot, a resident of Sodom, from Collective Punishment is the exception that proves the rule. Lot was saved by God’s Angel only (1) in the merit of Abraham because he was the latter's nephew and ward (-- "And so it was when God destroyed the cities of the plain that God remembered Abraham; so He sent Lot from amidst the upheaval when He overturned the cities in which Lot had lived." (Genesis 19:29) --), and (2) in the merit of the future Messiah, because he was to be an ancestor, via Ruth of Moab, to King David, progenitor of the Messiah (-- "Thus, Lot's two daughters conceived from their father. The older bore a son and she called his name Moab; he is the ancestor of Moab until this day." (Genesis 19:36-37); and: "And so, Boaz took Ruth ... and she bore a son. ... They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, the father of David." (Ruth 4:13-17) --).  However, even Lot’s salvation required his prior removal from evil Sodom.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, none of this discussion is intended to either minimize the fact that Dina was the direct victim of Prince Shechem's crimes or to suggest that a Chillul HaShem results only when an Evildoer harms a Jew for nationalistic reasons. On the contrary, every time that an Evildoer harms an innocent person (whether Jew or Gentile) -- whatever the motivation or lack thereof -- a Chillul HaShem is created; for, ordinary Evil and nationalistic Evil both result in a desecration of God's Name. However, if Dina had not been a representative of the nascent Jewish people, then an ordinary -- rather than a national -- Chillul HaShem would have resulted, for which atonement could have been obtained by punishing only the perpetrator. Yet, even in such circumstances, if such ordinary Evil were to be so tolerated as to become endemic to Society, as was the case with ancient Sodom, then even the ordinary Chillul HaShem which is created cannot be undone by punishing only the perpetrator -- for, in such a case, all of the members of Society constitute co-perpetrators.

Our biblical ancestors certainly acknowledged the reality, and feared the consequences, of Divine Collective Punishment. For, when they mistakenly believed that the leadership of those of their number who had been granted lands on the east side of the Jordan River (namely, the tribe of Reuben, the tribe of Gad, and half of the tribe of Menasseh ) had erected an idolatrous altar, they were determined to wage war against their kinsmen in order to avoid God's Wrath against all of the people of Israel. Accordingly, as a prelude to the military confrontation, a diplomatic delegation representing the leadership of the remainder of the tribes confronted their brethren. As the Hebrew Bible relates:

"They [i.e., the diplomatic delegation] came to the Children of Reuben, the Children of Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasseh, to the land of Gilead, and they spoke with them, saying, 'Thus said the entire assembly of HaShem: "What is this treachery that you have committed against the God of Israel -- to turn away from HaShem this Day, by building for yourselves an altar for your rebellion this Day against HaShem? Is the Sin of Peor not enough for us -- from which we have not become cleansed until this Day, and which resulted in the Plague in the Assembly of HaShem? Yet, Today, you would turn away from Hashem? If you rebel against HaShem Today, [then] Tomorrow He will be angry with the entire Assembly of Israel!"'" (Joshua 22:15-18)

Moreover, even the evildoing of a single person was sometimes enough to justify the imposition of Divine Collective Punishment against the entire people. As the Hebrew Bible relates, concerning the consecrated valuables of the destroyed City of Jericho:

“The Children of Israel trespassed against the consecrated property because Achan, son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took [some] of the consecrated property; and the Wrath of God flared against the Children of Israel.” (Joshua 7:1)

Yet, the Torah also declares:

"Fathers shall not be put to death because of sons, and sons shall not be put to death because of fathers; a man should be put to death for his own Sin." (Deuteronomy 24:16)  

Isn’t this Statement a repudiation of the doctrine of Collective Punishment?  No; it is, instead, a repudiation of the precept then common among the gentile nations that an innocent person may be justifiably punished for the individual Sin of his family member.  This situation is very different from the situation in which the leadership and supportive population of a nation have perpetuated such collective Evil that the entire nation, including those generations too young to have participated in such Evil, becomes collectively liable for punishment.  With respect to such a situation, the Torah declares that the God of Israel will visit "… the iniquity of fathers upon children unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate Me" (Exodus 20:5). 

But, in light of the Hebrew Bible’s endorsement of Collective Punishment, how should we interpret Jacob's famous deathbed declaration to his sons in the Land of Egypt, during which he says of Simeon and Levi:

"'Simeon and Levi are brothers. Instruments of crime are their wares ... for they have killed men with anger, maimed bulls with will. Cursed be their anger for it is fierce, and [cursed be] their fury for it is cruel.'" (Genesis 49:5-7)

Isn't this a condemnation of the massacre at the City of Shechem? Again, Jacob's words must be analyzed carefully.  For, he is condemning neither the brothers nor their attack on the City of Shechem in his deathbed declaration.  Rather, the subject of his condemnation is the brothers' uncontrollable personal anger, which had almost resulted in the death of their younger brother Joseph, and which had caused Jacob so many years of anguish on account thereof.  In fact, proof that Jacob did not intend to condemn the massacre in his last moments of life is revealed by what Jacob privately said to his favorite son Joseph just before publicly uttering his deathbed declaration: 

"And I have given unto you [the City of] Shechem, one [possession] above your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow." (Genesis 48:22) 

Clearly, Jacob would never have claimed for himself the conquest of the City of Shechem had he viewed the method by which that conquest was achieved as Evil.  Moreover, Jacob would never have gifted that City to any of his sons -- let alone to his favorite son -- had he viewed the conquest thereof as illegitimate.  Jacob’s descendants obviously concurred with this analysis, because, upon their return to the Land of Israel under the leadership of Joshua, the Hebrew tribes reburied the bones of Joseph in that very City (see Joshua 24:32).   All of the foregoing adds substantial weight to the Talmudic statement: "He [Jacob] cursed only their [the brothers’] rage." (Bamidbar Rabbah 99:6).

Unfortunately, the same type of anger that caused Simeon and Levi to attack the City of Shechem -- a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's Name) -- later caused them to plan the murder of Joseph -- a Chillul Hashem (desecration of God's Name). Joseph was the recipient of special affection from Jacob and received prophetic dreams of dominion over his brothers which he tactlessly shared with his family, all of which caused him to be hated by his brothers (see Genesis 37:3-11). As stated in the Torah:

"They [the brothers] saw him [Joseph] from afar; and when he had not yet approached them, they conspired against him to kill him. And they said to one another, 'Look! That dreamer is coming! So, now come and let us kill him'..." (Genesis 37:18-19). (According to Lekach Tov on Genesis 49:23 and Tanchuma Yashan, Vayeshev 13, these conspirators were Simeon and Levi).

Simeon's and Levi's hatred of Joseph was induced by personal anger and jealousy that knew no bounds. Our Sages condemn personal anger as a form of avodah zara (idolatry and other deviant worship), as it is said:

"Whoever becomes angry falls prey to all sorts of hellish forces ... Even the Divine Presence becomes unimportant to him." (Nedarim 22a-22b)

The brothers' attack on the City of Shechem, while justified (because the City was deserving of Collective Punishment), nevertheless stemmed from the brothers' personal anger and their desire for personal revenge.  Precisely because they acted out of personal motives with respect to the City of Shechem, they were later wholly unable to control their Yetzer HaRah (Evil Inclination), expressed as anger and jealousy, with respect to their brother Joseph, who was certainly entitled to mercy and forgiveness (unlike the evil Shechemites).

Although most people cannot help but exhibit personal anger from time to time, when a leader of the Jewish people falls prey to this primal instinct in his dealings with the Jewish people he creates a Chillul HaShem. This can be discerned, inter alia, from a comparison between the responses of two Jewish leaders -- Moses and Phineas -- to two separate incidences of Idolatry among the Jewish people, the first caused by Moses' extended absence from the Jewish people and the second caused by the sexual allure of the women of Midian.

When God informed Moses -- then atop Mount Sinai to receive the Tablets of the Ten Commandments -- that, in his absence, the Jewish people had created, out of molten gold, a calf to worship, thereby incurring a Decree of Annihilation, Moses eloquently and successfully assuaged God's Anger against the Jewish people. As the Torah then relates:

"HaShem relented regarding the Evil that He declared He would do to His People." (Exodus 32:14)

However, despite the fact that "… the Tablets were God's Handiwork, and the Script was God's Script engraved upon the Tablets" (Exodus 32:16), and despite the fact that God -- even in the face of the Jewish people's grievous Sin -- had nonetheless decided that Moses should still present to the people His holy Tablets, when Moses actually saw the calf and the revelry in the Jewish camp, then "... Moses' anger flared up ..." (Exodus 32:19), and he smashed God's Tablets. This was clearly personal anger rather than anger solely for God's Sake. What is the basis for this harsh opinion?  Firstly, on account of Moses' intervention, God had already abated His Anger towards the Jewish people. Secondly, God had already affirmed His Decision to give His Tablets to the Jewish people despite their Sin. Thirdly, after Moses smashed the Tablets: "HaShem said to Moses, 'Carve for yourself two stone Tablets like the first ones, and I shall inscribe on the Tablets the Words that were on the first Tablets, which you shattered" (Exodus 34:1), thereby demonstrating that God had neither authorized nor ratified Moses' prior act of destruction (see Exodus 32:7-20 and Exodus 34:1-4).  Moreover, due to the fact that the original Tablets were "God’s Handiwork", God decreed that Moses himself carve the replacement Tablets in order to afford him an appropriate amount of time to reflect upon the enormity of his Sin in having permitted his personal anger to direct his conduct, in the process causing him to substitute his judgment for God’s Judgment.

In the face of the Sin of the Golden Calf, why did God choose to reward the Jewish people with the Gift of the Tablets of the Ten Commandments? The answer is that this was no reward!  Rather, this Gift was an initial and immediate antidote to that very Sin.  Due to the extended absence of Moses, who was the flesh-and-blood representative of Incorporeal God, the Jewish people began to fear for their continued existence, and they mistakenly believed that their survival required the creation of a substitute manifestation of God's Presence in tangible form (see Exodus 32:1).  Alternatively stated, the people demanded that Aaron create, not a substitute for God, but rather a substitute for Moses. This was the golden calf!

However, once the people, in a fit of irreverence, declared that it was actually Aaron’s creation rather than Moses, acting under the Supervision of God, who had led them out of Egypt (see Exodus 32:4), Aaron realized that the people would not be content to limit his creation to its intended purpose, but that they would likely employ it for an idolatrous purpose.  That is precisely why, in an attempt to remind the people that only the God of Israel was a proper object of worship, Aaron built an altar and declared "… a festival for HaShem tomorrow" (Exodus 32:5).  Unfortunately, in initially capitulating to the people’s demand for the creation of an object forbidden by the Second Commandment (see Exodus 20:4), Aaron had badly miscalculated his ability to contain and control the resulting debacle.  

Consequently, in order to provide His People with an appropriate manifestation of His Presence, God created the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. What is the basis for the foregoing assertion that God created (and then replaced) the Tablets in order to serve this manifestational purpose rather than merely as a convenient medium for the transmittal of the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people?  The answer is that God’s customary and preferred medium for transmitting His Laws to the Jewish people was via Oral Declaration, as evidenced by the fact the Ten Commandments are but a fraction of the Laws -- all of them Divine Edicts requiring equal fealty -- which God provided to the Jewish people; and all of these other Laws were transmitted to the Jewish people via Oral Declaration.   In His Wisdom, God -- by creating the Tablets as the Sin was being committed -- sought to prevent the Jewish people from again falling into the Sin of Idolatry by removing any future need therefor. Yet, in his personal anger, Moses sought to substitute his judgment for that of His Master. In his rashness, Moses sought to prevent the Jewish people from again falling into the Sin of Idolatry by denying to them, as a punishment, God's holy Tablets -- these being the very antidote which God Himself had designed to accomplish that same purpose. That is precisely the reason why God informed Moses that the smashed Tablets were to be recreated in every detail. In this way, God's original Instruction was effectuated despite Moses' ill-considered attempt to deviate therefrom.

That Moses, especially when angered by the people, was inclined to substitute his judgment for God’s Judgment cannot be denied, as the Torah itself implicitly reveals this inclination during the incident in which the Jewish people complained about the unavailability of specified Egyptian food staples (primarily meat) and then disparaged the nourishing Manna provided to them directly by God.  As the Torah subsequently relates:

“Moses heard the people weeping in their family groups, each one at the entrance of his tent, and the Wrath of HaShem flared greatly; and in the eyes of Moses it [the weeping of the people] was Evil.” (Numbers 11:10) 

Why, in this case, does the Torah bother to disclose both God’s Judgment and Moses’ judgment concerning the people’s complaints?  The Torah is informing us that Moses was always inclined to exercise independent judgment, which, in this case, was the same as God’s Judgment, thereby implying that, in other cases, his judgment might diverge from God’s Judgment.  Related to this inclination was Moses’ own complaint to God that His Decision to make Moses the leader of the Jewish people had imposed upon Moses an open-ended punishment that ought to be alleviated by the immediate substitution of a terminal punishment.  As the Torah relates:

“And Moses said to HaShem, ‘Why have you done Evil to Your Servant [i.e., Moses]; and why have I not found favor in your Eyes that you put the burden of this entire people upon me?  Did I conceive this entire people? -- [or] did I give birth to it [i.e., the Children of Israel] that You instruct me: “Carry it in your bosom, as a nurse carries an infant”, to the Land that You swore to its forefathers? Where will I get meat to give this entire people when they weep unto me, saying: “Give to us meat and we will eat”?  I cannot alone carry this entire people, as it is [too] heavy for me.  And if this is how you treat me, [then] please kill me now if I have found favor in Your Eyes, so that I will not [live to] see my failure [as a leader].’” (Numbers 11:11-15) 

By making this complaint, an angry Moses was explicitly disputing, and requesting relief from, God’s Judgment that he must lead the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.  Moses was clearly doing that, but he was also doing much more.  For, he was also implicitly disputing (1) God’s past Judgment that the Jewish people be redeemed from slavery in Egypt, and (2) God’s present Judgment that the Jewish people be delivered to the Promised Land.  This assertion regarding Moses’ attitude toward certain of God’s Decisions was confirmed during the subsequent exchange between God and Moses, during which Moses seemed to question God’s Omnipotence.  As the Torah relates:

“And Moses said, ‘600,000 footmen are the people in whose midst I am; and yet You say that I shall give them meat, and they shall eat [such meat] for a month of days [i.e., more than 200 days]!  Can sheep and cattle be slaughtered for them and suffice for them? -- or, if all of the fish of the sea will be gathered for them, would it suffice for them?’ And HaShem said to Moses, ‘Is the Hand of HaShem limited? -- now you will see whether or not My Word will come to pass!’” (Numbers 11:21-23) 

After having repeatedly witnessed God’s Awesome Power, is it possible that Moses actually doubted God’s Ability to provide the entire people with meat for an extended period of time?  No!  Rather, an angry Moses was implicitly expressing his frustration and disagreement with God’s ostensible Decision to comply with the people’s outrageous demand for luxury food.

Much later, as His Response to the Jewish people's strident complaints to Moses concerning their thirst and -- yet again -- concerning their distress at being forced to come "... to this wilderness to die there ..." (Numbers 20:4), instead of having been permitted to remain in the Land of Egypt, God instructed Moses:

"'Take the staff and gather together the assembly, you and Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes that it shall give its waters; and you shall bring forth water from the rock, and give drink to the assembly and to their animals.'" (Numbers 20:8)

Yet, in a fit of personal anger at the Jewish people's repeated demonstrations of lack of faith in God's Power and Promises, Moses improperly substituted his own response for that of God. As the Torah relates:

"Moses took the staff from before HaShem, as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation before the face of the rock, and he [Moses] said to them [the Jewish people], 'Listen now, O rebels, shall we bring forth the water for you from this rock?' Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock with his staff twice; and abundant water came forth, and the assembly and their animals drank. HaShem said to Moses and to Aaron, 'Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel; therefore you will not bring this congregation to the Land that I have given to them.'" (Numbers 20:9-12)

What is meant by God's Declaration that Moses did not "believe" in Him? For, clearly, not only did Moses believe in God, but he uniquely experienced God “face to Face” (Deuteronomy 34:10).  The meaning is that Moses did not "believe" that certain of God's Decisions were appropriate responses to the Jewish people's serial transgressions, and that, consequently, Moses was not able to subordinate his human emotions to God's measured Determinations. Alternatively stated, as in the earlier crisis over the golden calf, Moses -- in his dual role as leader of the Jewish people as well as God's Emissary to the Jewish people -- proved himself unable to control his personal anger, thereby converting that which God intended to be a Kiddush HaShem into a Chillul HaShem. That is precisely the reason why the Torah then continues:

"They are the Waters of Strife, where the Children of Israel contended with HaShem, and He was sanctified through them [Moses and Aaron]." (Numbers 20:13)

In order to reconvert Chillul HaShem into Kiddush HaShem, God found it necessary to publicly punish His righteous Servants Moses and Aaron for their respective transgressions (of which this incident constituted the last); and He was, consequently, sanctified through them. This is similar to the earlier incident in which God sanctified His Name by publicly taking of the lives of Aaron's two sons -- Nadab and Abihu -- who, in their religious exuberance, had brought before Him their fire pans with an unsanctioned alien fire. As the Torah relates:

"Moses said to Aaron, 'Of this did HaShem speak, saying, "I will be sanctified through those who are nearest to Me, [thus] I will be honored before the entire people"'; and Aaron was silent." (Leviticus 10:3)

That the power of personal anger would induce Moses to substitute his own judgment for God’s Judgment should not be surprising.  For, the seductive desire to substitute one’s own judgment for God’s Judgment lies at the root of the very first Sin.  As the Torah relates:

“And HaShem God commanded the Man [Adam], saying, ‘Of every tree of the Garden you may freely eat.  But of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you must not eat from it; for, on the Day that you eat from it, you shall surely die.’” (Genesis 2:16-17)

God was warning Adam that human beings were barred from seeking to “‘… be like God, knowing Good and Evil.’” (Genesis 3:5) -- meaning that a human being, including God’s Anointed One, the future Messiah, must never believe that he has the Transcendent Ability to declare that which is Good and that which is Evil.  From the Dawn of Creation, that Holy Prerogative has been reserved by God for Himself, and for Himself alone.  To reiterate: As the Prophet Isaiah, speaking in God's Name, declares concerning God's Morality:

"For, My Thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My Ways -- the Word of HaShem. As high as the Heavens are above the Earth, so are My Ways high above your ways, and My Thoughts [high] above your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Consequently, a leader of the Jewish people must never seek to substitute his own judgment for God’s Judgment.  For, on the Day that he does so, he shall surely be condemned to suffer the same Punishment as God meted out to Moses for that repeated Sin.

Revenge, as a national and holy obligation, must be undertaken by a leader of the Jewish people solely for the sake of God’s Name and must never be motivated by personal anger. This lesson is finally learned by Levi's descendant (and Aaron's grandson), Phineas, who was faced with massive Idolatry among the Jewish people induced by the sexual enticements of the women of Midian. While the Tablets of the Ten Commandments had sufficed to prevent Idolatry among the Jewish people motivated by the Incorporeality of God, this antidote did not suffice to prevent Idolatry among the Jewish people motivated by the allure of forbidden sexual activity. Phineas responded to this crisis by ruthlessly killing Zimri, the Israelite notable, and Cozbi, the Midianite notable, in response to their very public sexual embrace in the sight of the entire Congregation of Israel. Thus, Phineas selflessly undertook, on behalf of the entire nation of Israel, God's Revenge against Zimri and Cozbi for their very public Chillul HaShem, thereby stopping a deadly plague (that had already consumed 24,000 Israelites) and earning God's "Covenant of Peace" for himself and God's "Covenant of Eternal Priesthood" for himself and his offspring (see Numbers 25:1-15).

For, in the case of the violence by Moses against the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, God refrained from describing His righteous servant's conduct as being for His Sake, as the Torah quotes God as instead referring to "... the first Tablets, which you [i.e., Moses] shattered." (Exodus 34:1).  However, in the case of the violence by Phineas against his fellow Israelite and the latter's Midianite consort, God explicitly declared that His righteous servant's conduct was solely for His Sake, as the Torah relates that "HaShem spoke to Moses, saying, 'Phineas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the Kohen, turned back My Wrath from upon the Children of Israel, when he zealously avenged Me among them; so I did not consume the Children of Israel in My Vengeance. Therefore, I say, "Behold -- I give to him My Covenant of Peace." And it shall be for him and his offspring after him a Covenant of Eternal Priesthood, because he took Vengeance for his God, and he atoned for the Children of Israel.'" (Numbers 25:10-13)


© Mark Rosenblit


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