Several years ago, a troubled and deranged man killed five Amish girls and seriously wounded five others. Subsequently, the families and community met to pray for forgiveness for the perpetrator and his family.
Contrast this with the now familiar sight of aggrieved family members standing in courtrooms, wishing the victimizer of their friend or family member a gruesome death, or the pain of rotting in prison.
The anger that we all feel when a loved one has been lost gives birth to the natural dynamic of revenge. Revenge is a form of anger. This was codified in ancient times as the Talion Principle of “an eye for an eye” and represents these primitive and reflective urges. Unchecked, such feelings resulted in repetitive “blood feuds” before more civilized means of dealing with wrongdoing were codified as Law.
The Hebrew Kabbalah sees people as imbued with Godly traits. These traits are individually called, Sefirot. Each is a conduit for God’s grace, for the goodness he brings into the world. Each is effectively a counter to the world’s evil.
Revenge is a distortion, or the shadow side of the Sefirot of Netzach. Netzach means victory and is derived from the Hebrew word menatze’ach, meaning “conductor” or “director”. It is the Sefirot, most applicable to governing the day to day interpersonal world. It is a focused love, the ability to see Gods love manifested toward a particular person who is suffering. Instead of cultivating anger in ourselves and instead of seeking revenge on a perpetrator we, as the Amish did, can counter the evil act by focusing love on those who suffer. Revenge perpetuates evil. In a more cosmic sense forgiveness helps us touch God by opening our hearts and letting His light in.
Nechama Leibowitz has written, “We are all part of one body, one community. If we take vengeance on our fellow man, we are also hurting ourselves. When we bear a grudge against our fellow man, we are hurting ourselves in the same way. A family that is bearing grudges constantly, will soon break up. The same is true of the extended family of mankind. Additionally, there is the unpleasantness that bearing a grudge causes us internally…”
As people, we come closer to God and heal the world (tiikun olam) through transcending revenge and bringing God’s light to bear on those who suffer. Anger and revenge block that light; forgiveness and compassion illuminate the darkness.
Frederic Luskin is Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project. He does research and teaches forgiveness training. Forgiveness is retraining ourselves to counter the instinctive anger (which Judaism defines as part of the animal soul), which we reflexively feel towards those who have directly hurt us or took something from our lives. Developing Forgiveness brings peacefulness, and in such a state we bring peace to others.
Michael Abramsky PhD, ABPP