Revenge: Not a Jewish Value
Parshat Masai shares additional detail regarding the laws of the Cities of Refuge, arei miklat.
In Jewish law, the category of horeg beshogeg, or negligence without intent to murder, allows for a member of the family or tribe of the victim to avenge the death.
The Torah provides Cities of Refuge in which the murderer, once convicted of negligent homicide without intent, may live protected from the appointed avenger. As long as the murderer stays in his City of Refuge, he is safe.
With the death of the Kohen Gadol, High Priest, the murderer may return to his home and tribe, and the avenger may not harm him.
The question posed by many is, how does the passing of the High Priest suddenly cool the tribal and family drive for avenging their murdered relative? What is to stop the avenger from ambushing the murderer on his way home?
In Judaism, revenge is seen as a negative attribute. The Torah clearly states, "You must not take revenge!" Revenge, in the Torah, belongs to Hashem. In Psalms we read Kel Nekamot Hashem, G-d is the avenging G-d. It is one of the few times an attribute has G-d's name both before it and after it.
The message here is often misunderstood to imply that the Jewish G-d is full of vengeance and revenge. The exact opposite is true. Judaism is all about forgiveness and repentance.
If, when, and how to take revenge is left to G-d. The Torah fully understands the human impulse to right perceived wrongs. To that end, the Torah provides the cooling-down period and establishes a safe place for the murderer to spend his days until the death of the High Priest brings forgiveness and resets the clock. The passing of the High Priest creates a sort of national amnesty, allowing all perceived wrongs between tribes that would otherwise fester and lead to internal strife to be forgiven and erased.
Today, yet again, the Jewish people in the State of Israel are at war with our enemies. The Israel Defense Forces, from their inception, understood their role: not as avengers assigned to take revenge, but rather as defenders. Revenge is G-d's business.
If only our enemies shared our culture of forgiveness rather than a culture of revenge.
Rabbi Pinchos Hecht