It was almost sundown on Friday, March 7, 1986, when David Blumenfeld, a middle-aged New York rabbi, happened to be walking down David Street in the Old City of Jerusalem, returning home after a visit to the Kotel, the Western Wall. A Palestinian man in his early 20s emerged from the shadows of an alley, took aim at the rabbi’s head with his Beretta, and fired one shot.
Rabbi Blumenfeld was not seriously injured; he escaped with a superficial scalp wound. Had the bullet entered his skull one inch lower, he probably would have died on the spot.
Not long after the shooting, David’s daughter, Laura, wrote a poem as an assignment for an undergraduate seminar in which she was enrolled at Harvard College. She titled the poem, “I am His Daughter,” and wrote the following lines in conclusion: “If you are the Arab/aimed in the near dark/grazing his temple/missing his life,/this hand will find you/I am his daughter.”
With the words “This hand will find you,” Laura gave voice to her desire for revenge, a desire that would continue to haunt her for the next 12 years.
The story of Laura Blumenthal’s struggle with her overpowering urge for revenge has found expression in her remarkably honest 2002 book, “Revenge: A Story of Hope.” During the course of writing the book, Blumenthal teased apart the many dimensions of revenge.
As she comes to understand more fully the complexity of her own personality, her own soul, she realizes that the urge for revenge is the result of multiple triggers: shame, loss of honor and a sense of dignity, the feeling of being impotent, the inability to forget, the search for true justice, the desire to restore the balance between good and evil, right and wrong – and, of course, that primitive urge that all of us feel at one time or another, the urge to get even.
All of these triggers combine to fuel the fire of overwhelming rage. And I might add that our compulsion for revenge is also an expression of our fear, of our quite understandable desire “to do it to them before they have another opportunity to do it to us.”
We all know that on Oct. 7, Hamas murdered some 1,200 Israelis, most of them defenseless men, women and children. We all know that hundreds more were maimed for life, and that more than 200 were kidnapped. It was the greatest loss of Jewish life in a single day since the Holocaust.
It is not surprising that many of us now harbor a visceral desire – no, more than that, an almost physical need – to seek unrestrained revenge. Some of us wish to see all members of Hamas wiped out, obliterated, exterminated – only then can we experience some form of relief, some sense of peace, some sense of shalom, some escape from our continuing nightmare.
But at what cost? What cost to Israel’s soldiers? What cost to Israeli citizens? What cost to Gaza’s citizens? What cost today? What cost to future generations?
Has anybody figured out what path will be opened after the last bomb falls? Is there any way out of here? Who dares to answer? Who dares not to answer?
How many lives are yet to be destroyed in the onrushing tide of vengeance? As Blumenthal writes: “[Revenge] is dangerous not [only] because of what it does to your enemy, but because of what it does to you.”
And, more than 100 pages later, Blumenthal adds: “There is a proverb in the Middle East: If you want revenge, dig two graves, one for your enemy and one for yourself.”
Many individuals have noted that we don’t need to make peace with our friends; we need to make peace with our enemies. Ultimately, violence cannot bring about peace. As difficult, as impossible, as it may seem, only peace can bring about peace.
Only tomorrow can tell us if we have, at last, found our way to peace, to shalom in its infinity of meaning.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.