by the Reisha Rav, HaGoan Rav Aaron Levine
Elucidated and Adapted by Efraim Levine
Dedicated in honor of my father Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine.
Upon the publication of his latest book: Jewish Business Ethics The firm and its Stakeholders.
Jason Aronson Inc.
To Dedicate Please Contact Hadrash Ve-Haiyun
Dan will be a snake upon the road, a serpent on the path, that bites a horse's heels and its rider falls backwards. (Bereishis 49:17)
Rashi writes that this posuk prophesizes how Shimshon will avenge the Philishtim.
The posuk thus indirectly informs us that the character of the snake is revenge. Likewise, the Gemara (Yoma 23a) states in the name of Rav Yochanan that any talmud chacham who does not take revenge like a snake is not a talmud chacham. What does a snake have to do with revenge? How is it that, in order to be classified as a true talmud chacham, one must take revenge? Is it not forbidden to take revenge, even for an ordinary Jew?
The simple answer to the second question is that we are referring to wicked people or those who desecrate the Torah. To such people, it is indeed permitted and required to practice vengeance. However, this practice is reserved for talmidei chachamim who can be trusted to act for the honor of Hashem and not ulterior motives.
Let us attempt to offer an alternative interpretation.
There are two types of revenge. The simple type is where one inflicts harms on another in response to a wrongdoing. The second type is where one repays a wrongdoing with kindness. Here, when the aggressor sees how his victim is not shaken by his cruelty and even responds by bestowing kindness, the aggressor is filled with shame, embarrassment, and remorse. He is pained at how he could have harmed such a kind and good individual.
The pain from shame and embarrassment is far more profound then a mere physical pain or punishment. Likewise, this latter form of revenge is permitted and advised whereas the former is forbidden. This concept is found in the posuk (Mishlei 25) "If your enemy is hungry feed him bread. If he is thirsty, provide him with water, for by doing so you are stirring coals on his head."
It is important to note that this type of revenge is not appropriate in all instances. In extreme cases, the Torah does require the harmful type of revenge, e.g., Amalek.
But how does this relate to the snake?
Let us look back at the primeval snake, otherwise known as the nachash hakadmoni.
The Gemara (Yoma 75) relates the following: Come and see: The character of Hashem is not like the character of man. When one man wrongs his fellow, the victim takes revenge, even by attempting to take the life of his aggressor. This type of response is not found by Hashem. When the primeval snake sinned against Hashem when it influenced Chavah to eat from the eitz hadaas, Hashem responded by "rewarding" the snake with an unlimited food supply, i.e., the dust of the earth. If the snake climbs to the roof, its food is there. If the snake comes down to the earth, its food is also found there. Wherever it travels, its food is by its side.
How do we understand this? A simple interpretation is that the ultimate punishment is not to need Hashem. We humans constantly find ourselves lacking and it is precisely our deficiencies that cause us to seek Hashem and ask Him to fill our needs. The ultimate punishment for the snake is that it always has what it needs and never needs to seek Hashem. Hashem, so to speak, told the nachash: "here take what you need and leave. I don't ever want to know from you!"
Based on the above, let us suggest an alternative explanation for Hashem's method of punishing the snake. Hashem took revenge against the snake with the "revenge of kindness." Hashem responded to the wickedness of the snake with the ultimate kindness by granting it everything it will ever need. This was for the snake the ultimate torture. When the snake realized how kind Hashem was to it, despite its sin, it was filled with shame, embarrassment, and remorse. It suffered from its realization of how tragic it was to rebel against Hashem.
With this we can suggest a new meaning to that which we started with. Chazal say "Any talmud chachum that does not take revenge like a snake is not a talmud chachum." We can now interpret this to mean any talmud chachum that does not take revenge like the revenge that Hashem took against the snake, i.e., revenge of kindness, is not a real talmud chachum. Talmidei chachamim have higher standards. They are expected to overlook wrongdoings and not directly avenge their enemies. They may, however, indirectly bring them suffering through kindness.