Few things are as difficult as taking revenge yet remaining righteous. The combination seems paradoxical. Even harder, though, is not to take revenge. It is beyond conceivable. An injustice done enters the innermost chambers of the victim’s heart, festering and unwilling to give up. Its devastating effect can destroy the victim’s life as few things can. Vengeance needs an outlet.
How does one master one’s desire for retaliation and not be destroyed by it? Is it possible not to bear a grudge? Feelings of revenge cannot be eliminated simply by denying them. They will surely explode, and the aftermath will be even worse than the original revenge one would have liked to take but suppressed.
How, then, can the Torah forbid any form of retaliation? “You shall neither take revenge nor bear a grudge against the members of your people” (1). Is this not asking the impossible and is it not, in fact, dangerous? We might understand that one is not allowed to take revenge in the form of action, but not even to bear a grudge seems to be impossible as well as counterproductive. One cannot suppress feelings without expecting consequences.
How did Joseph deal with his feelings of revenge after his brothers mistreated him and sold him into slavery? Did he really not take revenge or bear a grudge against them, as many commentators claim? Even the biblical text seems to present it as a possibility, when it tells us how Joseph’s brothers were worried that he would hold their treatment of him against them after their father Yaakov died: “And Joseph’s brothers saw that their father had died, and they said: Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and will pay us back for all the evil that we did to him” (2).
“And Joseph said to them: Fear not, for am I in the place of God? Though you intended evil against me, God designed it for the good, to make the outcome as it actually is on this day, to keep a great nation alive” (3).
Why, then, did Joseph not reveal himself at the first opportunity that arose, when his brothers stood before him? Instead, he teases them mercilessly. He bids them to come and then sends them away; accuses them after he has his royal cup and money planted in one brother’s sack so as to embarrass them; throws one of them into jail, and puts them all in a state of mortal fear. If this is not revenge, what is? Commentators struggle with this episode and have come up with some brilliant, and some weak, explanations.
Joseph is a skillful psychologist. His self-perception is supreme. He realizes that revenge is a futile attempt to remedy past suffering. Vengeance cannot be defended as “teaching the aggressor a lesson,” or “getting even.” It simply doesn’t work. Rather than bringing closure after suffering violence and injury, revenge spirals and escalates. But there also cannot be a suppressed anti-vengeance moral stand. It, too, will not work; for it is angelic, not human.
Instead, the rage that feeds vengeance should be redirected to positive thought and action. The impulse toward revenge must be weakened; in its place, genuine sorrow should emerge. The need for retaliation must be given time to slowly die out. It cannot be killed overnight.
At the same time, it must also cause the perpetrator to realize his mistake, make peace with himself and sincerely repent. Revenge can be meaningful only if it is healing to both the victim and the perpetrator. Then, it is no longer vengeance but revengeful healing. What Joseph does is set up a strategy by which both conditions are fulfilled.
Joseph does not take actual revenge. All he does is allow his subconscious to have its way and believe that he is taking revenge. While his reason dictates not to retaliate, because it has no purpose, he knows that feelings of hate may be lurking in his subconscious even as he is unaware of them. His experience with dreams, via the baker, the wine butler and Pharaoh, has taught him how powerful the subliminal voice is. There is no escape, however much one would like to remove any feelings of vengeance. It must get its way. Otherwise, it may manifest itself in the most forceful manner and cause enormous damage. To ignore it is a major mistake. It needs to be acknowledged. There must be revenge, even if it goes against one’s better judgment. But it should never manifest itself; it can only be subconscious revenge.
Joseph is aware of yet another aspect of the need for retaliation. It is necessary for the perpetrators to think that he had his revenge, and after it has been executed there is complete closure.
Thus, what Joseph does is most ingenious. He tricks his subconscious as well as his brothers by creating a strategy that makes all parties believe that he actually is taking revenge. In this way, he satisfies all sides.
At the same time, he must make sure that his brothers have the opportunity to repent for their mistakes, and that can be done only if he creates a scenario where they find themselves in a similar situation as at the time when they sold him.
Maimonides defines repentance as follows: “What constitutes complete repentance? He who is confronted by the identical situation wherein he previously sinned and it lies within his power to commit the sin again, but he nevertheless abstains and does not succumb because he wishes to repent … this is a true penitent” (4).
Aware of how terribly guilty the brothers will feel once he reveals himself, Joseph needs to create a situation that would pre-empt this possibility. He must set up a scenario that will once again incite hatred for one of the brothers, and it must again be Yaakov’s youngest and favorite child. This can only be Binyamin. Indeed it is he who satisfies all the requirements needed to bring about a serious dispute among the brothers. And so Joseph sets Binyamin apart, making sure he is guilty of getting all the brothers into trouble – caused by the discovery of the cup and the money in his sack, which he seemingly stole (5) – and favoring him, as their father, Yaakov, favored Joseph many years earlier (6). This gives the brothers good reason to hate Binyamin and abandon him. It is the ultimate test case. Will they let their little brother down, or will they fight for him and not sell him to the enemy? If they choose the latter, it will finally give them peace of mind once Joseph reveals himself, and there will no longer be need for guilt feelings. They will know that they have repented! They have uprooted their earlier behavior in an optimal way.
In doing all this, Joseph satisfies the need of his own subconscious to take revenge and allows his brothers to believe that he had his revenge, while presenting them with the opportunity to do teshuva. All of this is accomplished in one brilliant move, carefully planned and executed.
What Joseph doesn’t realize is that the plan may not entirely work. What if the brothers don’t believe that after he has had his “revenge” he will no longer consider them guilty and all will be well? Perhaps he will continue to take revenge now that Yaakov is no longer alive! And indeed this is what the brothers seem to believe. It creates an enormous dilemma for Joseph. How will he convince them that such is not the case? If he can’t persuade them of his sincere belief that there is no place for vengeance, then there is no chance that his relationship with them will, once and for all, be healed. The only thing he might be able to convince them of is that he won’t take revenge in deed. But he realizes that he can’t prove to them that he doesn’t bear a grudge. They won’t believe him.
Again, he makes a smart move. Instead of trying to convince them of what they believe is impossible, he asks them: What about you? Don’t you have reason to bear a grudge against me even after all you have done to me? Perhaps you were right in your animosity toward me. After all, my behavior was obnoxious. I spoke evil about you to our father (7). My dreams obviously distressed you when I announced that you would bow down to me. Who would not be upset? I understand that you felt mistreated when our father gave the many-colored garment to me and not to any of you. In many ways, I laid the trap that ensnared you. So why put all the guilt on yourselves? We are all guilty. Perhaps I made your lives as miserable as you made mine. More than that, I know that you were looking for me when you came to Egypt. You didn’t come only to buy food, but also to find me and make peace with me (8). But I didn’t want you to have the satisfaction of finding me, so I set the stage – threatening you, putting our brother Shimon in jail and causing you enormous problems when dealing with our youngest brother, Binyamin.
Are we not even, then? I live a life of wealth. I have servants at my beck and call. I am second in power – probably not only in Egypt, since Egypt is by far the largest empire in the world. So who has more reason to complain, you or I? You had to suffer through a terrible famine and live day and night with a depressed father, while I enjoyed myself as the spoiled second monarch of Egypt.
Is it not remarkable that you tried to harm me but it only partially succeeded? Events turned in a way that nobody would have expected. Your “terrible” deeds were actually instrumental in my becoming who I am today: a wealthy and powerful man, enjoying his life as few can. So why should I take revenge on you? It is you who have good reason to take revenge on me! You have made me a great, powerful and wealthy man. But what have I done for you all these years? I left you out in the cold, never stretching out my hand to you in the Land of Israel. I never tried to make contact with you and our father; and we would never have met had you not taken the initiative. It was not I who searched for you. I would have let you die in the famine! Is that not as bad as what you did to me? In fact, it is much worse!
So, I should be thankful to you for what you did to me, even if the beginnings were difficult. Not only that: I wonder why you don’t want to take revenge on me now, now that you stand in front of me! I am most vulnerable. You could shout at me, injure me, and even kill me. There are no servants here; I sent them all away, to ensure that we would be alone!
Don’t you realize what outstanding tzaddikim you are? I am by far inferior to you! Because of what you did to me I can save our nation. So it is not I who is to be praised; it is you who brought all this about. Looking even deeper, there is no explanation for this unreal story but that God engineered it, and no one else.
Revenge? I don’t know what you’re talking about!
Arguing this way, Joseph not only convinces his brothers of their blamelessness, but he achieves his ultimate goal: convincing his subconscious. By planning this whole strategy and contending that it is not he who should be upset but his brothers, it becomes clear that there is absolutely no place for revenge.
Not only will I not take revenge on you; I cannot even bear a grudge against you.
This is the ingenious chochma that Joseph demonstrates. He argues against himself and convinces himself that there is only One Who is behind this story, and that personal feelings have no part in this.
Closure on all levels.
1. Vayikra 19:18.
2. Bereishit 50:15.
3. Ibid., 19-20.
4. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 2:1.
5. Bereishit 44:2.
6. Ibid., 37:3.
7. Ibid., 37:2; See also Rashi.
8. Ibid., 42:13, Rashi.
Questions to Ponder from the David Cardozo Think Tank:
1. The question of strategies to promote healing and growth for victims of violence and abuse is, sadly, as relevant as ever in our modern world. Joseph’s strategy, in Rabbi Cardozo’s account, is one that seeks healing for the victim (Joseph), the perpetrators (the brothers) and their relationship. It involves acknowledgment of his pain and vulnerability as well as understanding and empathy for the perpetrators. That is a tall order, and it is noteworthy that Joseph does this when he is no longer in a position of risk vis-à-vis his brothers. In our modern world, are there circumstances where this strategy of mutual healing is appropriate (for example, family mediation or therapy)? Are there circumstances where it is inappropriate?
2. In Rabbi Cardozo’s account, revenge does not work and is even counter-productive, since it leads to an escalating spiral of violence such as blood feuds. Is there a place for revenge in maintaining the moral equilibrium of civilization? Societies, for example, solve the problem of the escalating spiral by taking punishment out of the hands of the victim and placing it in the hands of an independent penal system. Is revenge the (or an) underlying principle of the concept of punishment?
3. Joseph understood his suffering as also giving rise to the circumstances that enabled him to effect great good in the world, primarily to save his family, the future nation. It was in this way that he perceived God’s hand in his fate. Our modern world, too, has its moral heroes for whom great suffering and tragedy has been a springboard for doing good in the world. Is this Judaism’s alternative to the project of theodicy – that of justifying God in the face of the existence of evil?