Israeli fans at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Sept. 5, 1972. (Photo/JTA-Klaus Rose-picture alliance via Getty Images)
Israeli fans at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Sept. 5, 1972. (Photo/JTA-Klaus Rose-picture alliance via Getty Images)

Can vengeance ever be justifiable? This week’s Torah portion raises tricky questions.

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Ki Teitzei
Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19

We find the Torah portion Ki Teitzei toward the end of the book of Deuteronomy. It represents the beginning of Moses’ final farewell to his people. Mostly, though, it is an enumeration of laws and practices that covers everything from the rights of women to property matters to the treatment of animals.

But at the very end of the parashah, there is a recollection, which is also a command, that almost seems out of place and is set apart from the other content that marks the rest of the portion.

“Remember what Amalek did to you,” Moses declares to the assembled tribes of Israel, “on your journey, after you left Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 25:17)

There is very little detail that is described in the Torah when the battle between the Amalekites and the Israelites actually occurs. (Exodus 17:8-16) But in the recounting of the event these many years later, Moses explains why the episode is so disturbing.

Amalek is an especially loathed enemy because “he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” (Deuteronomy 25:18)

For this reason, presumably, Moses now gives an order to his people: “When the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:19)

Among all of the other ancient peoples with whom Israel had conflicts (even the Egyptians), only Amalek is singled out for this specific, vengeful command.

This sort of outright condemnation of an entire people does not occur elsewhere in the Torah. It seems straightforwardly hateful, not the kind of thing that we would ordinarily expect to emanate from the mouth of the great Jewish lawgiver and prophet.

Is it because Amalek specifically targeted the weak and the infirm among the Israelites, those who were already exhausted and vulnerable?

It may be, but this expression of vengeance, not only for Amalek, but for all the children and grandchildren who will follow him, seems extremely jarring in the context of classical Jewish moral teaching. What about the ideas of compassion and forgiveness?

There is no easy answer to the tension between vengeance and justice.

It also seems inconsistent with other, earlier Jewish values and principles.

In Deuteronomy 16:20 — just a few chapters prior to the Amalek section — we find the famous verse and commandment: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” “Justice, justice shall you pursue”

Justice, tzedakah, is not identical with vengeance, nekamah. Justice is about fair play, about equity, about making things right. Vengeance is about punishment, retribution, retaliation. There is a primitive, emotional aspect to it.

We know that justice is one of our religion’s highest goals. From Moses to the prophets to the rabbis who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, our spiritual leaders have always urged us to pursue it above almost all else. But is vengeance ever acceptable, even when we have been wronged or attacked in profound, traumatic ways?

How do we reconcile this ambiguity in our tradition?

On one hand, there seem to be certain situations when vengeance and retribution are appropriate and understandable, even justifiable from a moral standpoint.

After Palestinian terrorists took hostage and brutally murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, the State of Israel sought to punish the perpetrators. They wanted revenge. Mossad spent years trying to find and assassinate the terrorists, with mixed results. Very few people, particularly Jews, had a problem with the assassinations.

And yet, on the other hand, there are other situations when justice rather than retribution makes more sense. Since 1952, Germany has paid Israel many billions of dollars as reparations for the economic and moral crimes against Jews during the Holocaust.

By accepting this “just” political and economic arrangement, the Israeli government is implicitly saying that it doesn’t believe in permanent collective guilt. In other words, the Germany after the Second World War is not the same as the Germany of the Nazi period. The relationship between the two countries today is not adversarial, but sound and productive.

There is no easy answer to the tension between vengeance and justice. The Jewish community seems to accept the need for both of them, depending on context and situation. May our history, wisdom and common sense guide us whenever we face new challenges to our life or well-being.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."