All evil is self-destructive. The moment of truth becomes the ultimate revelation of Hashem’s Kavod
AS Tishah B’Av approached during my first year in yeshivah, I found myself struggling to relate. I turned to Rav Moshe Rozmarin, (author of Devar Moshe) for guidance, and he shared two thoughts.
First, he told me, once you’re married with kids, relating to Tishah B’Av becomes much easier. I understood his words to mean that the love and nurturing that come with building a family take one’s sensitivity to suffering to a totally different level. After having hugged one’s own child, reading, “Should women eat their own offspring, the babes of their care?” (Eichah 2:20) takes on a heartrending new dimension.
Secondly, he advised, while it may be hard to relate to 2,000-year-old suffering, contemporary suffering is vivid and alive. When you read about the past, think about the present. Then use those emotions as a hook to connect to the past.
This second piece of advice resonated deeply. If I couldn’t relate to the Churban Beis Hamikdash, I could always relate to the churban of Europe. I grew up in North West London thinking that having a number tattooed on your arm was normal. I had heard horrific and explicit stories from my parents, teachers, and shul members who had actually seen or experienced the suffering.
Yirmiyahu Hanavi said, “I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of His anger” (Eichah 3:1). With Rav Rozmarin’s advice, the road from the crematoria of Auschwitz allowed me to connect to “the rod of His anger” of crusades, pogroms, and inquisitions, all the way back to the fires of Yerushalayim.
The Desire for Revenge
As a mechanech who takes groups to Poland, I often tell a short and powerful story at the selection platform in Birkenau, Auschwitz.
Over the course of 56 days, from May 15 through mid-July, 1944, 437,402 Jews were deported from Hungary in 147 trains. That’s almost 8,000 kedoshim per day. To give perspective, the sum total of every Yid who has been killed for being Jewish since the Holocaust, including all the korbanos of Israel’s wars, adds up to less than a week of Hungarian transports.
During that time, a German priest was stationed in Auschwitz, ostensibly to give “chizuk” to the German guards. A huge cross hung from his neck. He watched day in, day out, as the transports rolled onto the platform, ejecting their dazed and confused captives. Their faces were filled with innocence, their eyes shining with a fusion of terror and sanctity.
Witnessing the atrocities took a toll on the priest, and one day, while watching these pure Yidden being butchered at the platform, he finally cracked. He tore off his wooden cross and started breaking it into pieces. As it splintered, he cried out at the top of his voice, “Das ist Gottes Volk! — This is G-d’s People!”
I share this story with my students to evoke a sense of Jewish pride in the holy kedoshim. Truthfully, though, for most of us, when standing in a place where such unfathomable evil took place, the primary emotion we feel isn’t pride, but rather anger, outrage against the perpetrators of unparalleled crime. And swiftly following anger is often the desire for vengeance.
Score to Settle
On a purely intellectual level, this desire for revenge seems illogical. As a teen, I remember being highly disturbed when a friend vowed that, given the chance, he would murder six million Germans to settle the score. Most of the Nazis are dead. And if we could kill every last decrepit, old Nazi, would it change anything for the kedoshim who died? To quote Winston Churchill, “Nothing is more costly, more sterile, than vengeance.”
Still, the desire for revenge is a primal urge inside our hearts, albeit one we are forbidden to act upon. The Torah warns us “lo sikom — do not seek revenge” (Kedoshim 19:18). Hashem knows full well the geshmak we feel when the neighbor who refused to give us a ride last week knocks on our door desperate for cash. We refuse the loan, and it feels great! In the words of the Ramchal, “Vengeance is sweeter than honey” (Mesilas Yesharim 11).
However, revenge isn’t always wrong. Sometimes, it becomes a holy obligation. In parshas Mattos, Bamidbar 31:2, Hashem instructs Moshe Rabbeinu, “nekom nikmas bnei Yisrael me’eis haMidyanim; achar, tei’asef el amecha — take vengeance for the Children of Israel from the Midianites; afterwards you will be gathered to your people.”
The Midrash says that this was Moshe’s final, climactic act before going up to Heaven, and that had he chosen to delay the war against Midian, he would have delayed his own death (Tanchuma, Mattos 3). To Moshe’s credit, he understood the urgency of this holy war and immediately sprang into action. The closing chapter of Moshe Rabbeinu’s life was vengeance.
Most poignant is Hashem’s promise of vengeance at the End of Days. The Shirah in parshas Ha’azinu ends with the following promise: “Harninu goyim amo, ki dam avadav yikom, v’nakam yashiv l’tzarav, v’chiper admaso amo — Sing, nations, the praises of His people, for He will avenge the blood of His enemies, and will appease His land and His people” (Devarim 32:43).
Ramban tells us that Shiras Ha’azinu is a microcosm of Jewish history. In its final crescendo, corresponding to the closing chapter of history, Hashem declares, “li nakom, vengeance is Mine” (Devarim 32:35).
Clearly, nekamah is a critical component of the End of Days, as if Hashem declares, “I take this personally, I must take care of this Myself.”
But why? How are we to understand vengeance against the perpetrators of atrocities committed in the distant past?
The Soul’s Desire
The first step in understanding nekamah is to recognize that vengeance is intrinsically different from justice. A speeding ticket is not vengeance; it’s a punishment that fits the crime. Think of it as a technical necessity. Our batei dinim and l’havdil the world’s judiciary systems are based on justice, because it’s the bedrock of a functioning society (Avos 3:2).
The desire for vengeance, on the other hand, isn’t technical, but rather connects to our core essence. Let’s go back to the Mesilas Yesharim and bring the quote in full: “Man is highly sensitive to elbon, being insulted, and when he’s insulted, he feels tremendous pain. For him, vengeance is sweeter than honey, and it’s his only way to find menuchah, inner peace.”
While the word “insulted” is my attempt to translate the word elbon, understanding its meaning requires more elaboration. Elbon is the natural kavod that we all have, that part of us that screams out, “bishvili nivra ha’olam, the world was created just for me” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).
In Tehillim 30:13, the pasuk says “L’maan yezamercha chavod — let my kavod sing Your praises” and Metzudas Dovid explains, “This is referring to our soul, which is the kavod of our bodies.” Our soul and kavod are one and the same.
Hashem created us in such a way that when our kavod has been wounded, we have an instinctive need to restore our equilibrium, and that can only be achieved through nekamah.
This concept can be seen in the word itself. The root of nekamah is the letter nun followed by the two letters kuf and mem. The letter nun is the letter that represents falling (Berachos 4b). Kuf and mem read “kam,” which means “rise up.” We can only rise up and restore our wounded kavod once our enemy has fallen.
Mesilas Yesharim goes on to say that the mitzvah of lo sikom is unnatural. In forbidding us to take revenge, Hashem is asking us to act in a way that contradicts our essential nature, prodding us to superhuman growth. If you lend money to that neighbor who wouldn’t help you when you needed him, and you do it b’sever panim yafos, with a smile, you have elevated yourself to the level of malachei hashareis, ministering angels, who are beyond the realm of kavod.
Since our soul is eternal, this instinct to stand up for our kavod stays with us into the grave. At the beginning of Creation, when Kayin murdered Hevel, Hashem admonishes Kayin: “The voice of the blood of your brother cries out to me from the ground” (Bereishis 4:10). Our blood is that part of our body that contains our soul (Devarim 12:23). It has a voice that cries out from the grave, demanding restitution for our elbon.
Furthermore, when evil is unleashed in the world, the elbon reaches far beyond our individual souls. There is, kiveyachol, an elbon directed at Hashem. This is what we call “chillul Hashem.” In a sense, Hashem’s kavod has been compromised. History is full of dark chapters of chillul Hashem, with some obvious examples including Dor Hamabul, Sedom, Pharaoh, Sisera, and Haman.
At the End of Days, evil will be eradicated and Hashem will be revealed as Hashem Echad. Li nakom, this vengeance belongs to Hashem alone. But as we shall see, the revelation of ultimate vengeance involves a much deeper idea.
Chazal make two observations that are clearly connected (Berachos 33a):
“The Beis Hamikdash is great, as the Torah refers to it between two names of Hashem, as the pasuk says, ‘Hashem, mikdash Hashem’ ” (Shemos 15:17).
“Nekamah is great, as the Torah refers to it between two names of Hashem, as the pasuk says, ‘Keil nekamos Hashem’ ” (Tehillim 94:1).
A foundation of Kabbalah involves understanding the secrets of Hashem’s names. On our level, the Gemara is teaching us that the journey from the Beginning of Days (the first name of Hashem) to the End of Days (the second name of Hashem) must pass through two crucial stations, Mikdash and nekamah. What makes them crucial, and how are they connected?
A fascinating correlation is that they both produce geirim — converts. Let’s contrast two stories, both connected to the Beis Hamikdash:
Rashi (Devarim 33:19) describes how when the seafaring tribe of Zevulun traded with the nations of the world, their non-Jewish trading partners would visit Zevulun’s territory and say, “If we’re already in Eretz Yisrael, let’s visit the Beis Hamikdash and see what it’s all about.” Awed by the beauty and majesty of Klal Yisrael performing the Avodah, they’d say, “There is no nation like this nation,” and they would convert.
The second story, recounted in Gittin 57b, involves Nevuzradan, the cruel captain of Nevuchadnetzar’s armies. When he arrived at the Azarah (the courtyard of the Beis Hamikdash), he was shocked to see blood seething and bubbling on the Azarah floor. The onlookers explained to him that this was the blood of Zecharyah Hanavi, who had been stoned to death by Jews after he warned and admonished them about the impending Churban.
Aghast, Nevuzradan declared, “I will appease him!”
He murdered the Great Sanhedrin and Small Sanhedrin, but the blood still roiled. He slaughtered young men and women, cheder children, but the blood still seethed. He continued the horrific massacre until close to a million Jews had been murdered, to no avail. Finally, he cried out, “Zecharyah, Zecharyah! I have slain the finest of your people. Do you want me to destroy them all?” His words had their desired impact, and the blood stopped bubbling.
Absorbing the impact of what had happened, Nevuzradan was overwhelmed with remorse. “If this is the vengeance that Jews receive for slaying one soul,” he said, “what will happen to me, who has slain such multitudes?!”
He fled and became a ger — a convert.
Two stories, two separate paths to geirus.
The geirus of Zevulun’s trade partners was more straightforward; they saw the grandeur of the Beis Hamikdash, and were drawn to be a part of it. Nevuzradan’s geirus was precipitated by understanding the power of nekamah. When he saw the bubbling blood that would not be placated so long as Zecharyah’s murder was not avenged, he understood that if the vengeance exacted for the honor of one Jew was so deep, how much deeper would be the vengeance exacted on him.
But Nevuzradan’s deeper insight was that the evil itself turned out to be a vehicle to reveal Hashem’s kavod. The evil unleashed by the murder of a navi in the holiest place on earth created the miracle of the bubbling blood, which in turn caused him to murder almost a million Jews, which in turn brought Nevuzradan to realize that all evil is self-destructive.
This brings us to a deeper level of understanding the nature of nekamah. As we stated earlier, the simpler level is that when our nefesh, the higher part of our humanity, has had its natural kavod diminished, it demands a restoration of that kavod through nekamah. But the deeper level of nekamah is when the instrument that diminished your kavod becomes the catalyst to reveal the depth of your kavod. And this second kind is Hashem’s nekamah.
At the Beis Hamikdash, there were two types of gilui kevodo — revelations of Divine kavod, and each so powerful that they brought geirim. One was from the essential kavod of the place itself, the other was from the kavod revealed from nekamah (though the primary phenomenon of gilui kavod through nekamah will take place at the End of Days).
They are both “given between two names of Hashem” because they are equal in effect. One is the direct kavod of pure goodness and the other is the indirect kavod revealed through the nekamah against evil.
Implosion of Evil
The most exalted nekamah is when Hashem allows evil to become stronger and stronger until it looks insuppressible. Then, just when it reaches its zenith, it implodes, revealing itself to have been powerless all along, nothing more than the plaything of Hashem, a tool to bring out His kavod.
We see this in the story of Purim. Haman reaches the zenith of his power, responding to “what should be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?” with a resounding, “whom would the king wish to honor more than me?” Within hours he was hanging from a tree.
Let’s develop this idea further by returning to the Churban.
The Talmud (Gittin 56b) describes in graphic detail the atrocities committed by Titus, the Roman general who destroyed the Beis Hamikdash, followed by a lengthy account on how Hashem exacted an unusual vengeance.
Titus entered the Holy of Holies with a harlot and a sefer Torah and committed an unspeakable act. As he left, he took his sword and ripped the Paroches — the holy curtain that separates the Heichal from the Holy of Holies. Miraculously, blood started oozing out of the curtain. Titus thought, kiveyachol, that on a certain level he had killed Hashem.
In truth, the blood did represent a death of sorts. In the brachos following the reading of the haftarah, we describe the Beis Hamikdash as Beis Chayeinu — the House of Our Life. The reason why the laws of Tishah B’Av parallel the laws of aveilus is because with the Churban we lost that Beis Chayeinu.
A bas kol introduced Hashem’s nekamah with the words, “Rasha, son of a rasha, descendant of Eisav Harasha! I have a simple creature in my world called a yitush — a mosquito. Why is it called a simple creature? Because it has a mouth to allow food in but has no way to allow food out.” A yitush flew into Titus’s nostril and tortured him for over seven years until he died.
Why did Hashem use a yitush for vengeance? And why did the bas kol focus on the peculiar fact that a yitush has no way to expel food?
The Talmud (Megillah 25b, based on pesukim in Yeshayahu 46:1-4) compares avodah zarah to a person who is chronically constipated. The waste matter accumulates until the person explodes, revealing itself to be nothing more than excrement. Rav Chaim of Volozhin (Nefesh Hachayim 2:7) explains that everything healthy and alive has a filtering system. Kiveyachol Hashem has one too. The evil unleashed into the Higher Worlds by the deeds of man is expurgated through onesh, Hashem’s system of punishment.
As the illusion of avodah zarah expands and expands, it creates an impression that it is alive and all powerful. Until the moment of truth. When it explodes and reveals itself to be excrement, the antithesis of kavod, we realize it was essentially nothing all along. All evil is self-destructive. The moment of truth becomes the ultimate revelation of Hashem’s Kavod.
Titus, representing the power of Rome and their ancestor Eisav, thought he had “killed Hashem.” Therefore the yitush was the perfect instrument to reveal its essence. Let the creature that “has a mouth to allow food in but has no way to allow food out” destroy the evil that cannot filter its filth. The yitush reveals that not only did Titus not “kill Hashem” but that he, and what he represents, was never alive in the first place (Nefesh Hachayim 1:4).
The Final Revenge
As the suns starts to set on Tishah B’Av, the tone of the day switches to nechamah, the search for comfort. In Tefillas Nachem, inserted into Minchah, we pray for the day when the fire that destroyed Yerushalayim becomes the exact same fire that redeems it. Like the sun itself, fire has healing properties and destructive properties.
Fire represents Middas Hadin, the attribute of Hashem’s justice. At the End of Days, fire will bring kavod for Hashem and His people in a way that we are unable to comprehend today. Like Nevuzradan and the visitors who did business with the tribe of Zevulun, there will be an avalanche of requests for geirus. We will no longer accept them, although we look forward to lovingly bringing home every lost Jew.
Kol demei achicha tzo’akim eilai min ha’adamah. The voice of every single Jew who has ever suffered under the hand of our enemies, even the slightest pain, the smallest verbal abuse, is still crying from under the ground. Thousands of years have not dampened their voices.
And Hashem assures us, “ki dam avadav yikom.” I will avenge their blood; this is for Me, and Me only. Every one of these Jews will be brought back to life to see with their own eyes the full power of Hashem’s Middas Hadin. We cannot comprehend the depths of the Gehinnom we will witness our enemies enduring as each of the myriad anti-Semites throughout history will cry out their version of, “Moshe emes v’Toraso emes!” and “Das ist Gottes Volk!”
At Kri’as Yam Suf, the Yidden experienced a nekamah reminiscent of the vengeance Hashem will exact on our enemies at the End of Days. Maharal (Gevuros Hashem, 2nd Introduction) explains that the neis besoch neis — miracle within a miracle (Ramban, Shemos 15:19) — at the Yam Suf was that what Klal Yisrael experienced as dry land the Egyptians experienced as raging sea, in exactly the same place! This allowed each Jew to see the extent of Middas Hadin in the suffering of each Egyptian. The sadists who enjoyed wielding their whips suffered the most and the ones who were “just doing their jobs” suffered the least (Rashi, Shemos 15:5).
What we cannot fathom is how each anti-Semite will, through their unique judgment, bring out new levels of kavod to Hashem. Not just every Nazi holding a gun, but every kapo, Ukrainian guard, and jeering bystander, every rasha, over 3,000 years of pain. We also cannot fathom how all those who suffered will receive the ultimate nechamah from this moment. They will not just say, “our suffering was worth it,” rather they will rejoice in the great zechus to have been part of this Master Plan.
This year, instead of struggling to relate to the aveilus over what once was, may we merit to rejoice in the nekamah and nechamah that will be.”
Rabbi Menachem Nissel is a mechanech in Jerusalem and is the author of Rigshei Lev: Women and Tefillah. He is a talmid of Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l, bli ayin hara.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 804)
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