The Human Spirit: Settling scores

"We don't deal with revenge, but with how best to protect ourselves and harm terrorists."

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
"This isn't revenge," Brigade Commander Lt.-Col. Ariel Yohanan told a reporter last week when the IDF paratroopers returned to the town of Bint Jbeil in Lebanon. Three days earlier, First Lt. Yiftah Schreier, 21, a paratrooper from Haifa, was killed there by an anti-tank rocket. "We don't deal with revenge, but with how best to protect ourselves and harm terrorists," Yohanan explained. Even in the midst of acrid warfare, when anger and frustration engulf our nation and our soldiers risk their lives once again to protect the people of Israel, we feel compelled to affirm our core values. Revenge isn't what we're seeking. A few weeks before the summer of gentle revival turned dark with kidnapping and missile attacks on our towns and cities, revenge happened to be the subject of a talk at my Jerusalem synagogue. In a scholarly and thoughtful manner, the custom of regularly reciting the Av Harahamim prayer was considered. THIS 1,000-year-old mourning prayer begins with "Merciful Father" and ends with a call for heavenly retribution. "Let it be known among the nations in our sight that You avenge the spilled blood of Your servants… For He who exacts retribution for spilled blood remembers them. He does not forget the cry of the humble." The prayer was written after zealots on the First Crusade paused on their way to recapture the Holy Land in order to slaughter the Jews living in communities near the Rhine River. Customs vary widely regarding its reciting. In congregations that follow the German ritual, for example, the prayer is said only on the Shabbat before Shavuot and on the Shabbat before Tisha Be'av - last Shabbat. In most synagogues, it's also recited on Tisha Be'av in the morning prayer. Most commonly, as in our relatively new congregation, it's recited every Shabbat except festive ones. The influential 19th-century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch saw Av Harahamim as the ultimate protection from our worst impulses, teaching us to overcome the lust for vengeance and leaving retribution to the Creator. Appealing for heavenly justice, said Rabbi Hirsch, "has helped us remain human and kind." Despite that view, the operant question of the synagogue lecture was whether we might consider making a change in the regular repetition of a prayer that calls for violent revenge, even though that revenge might be by God. Our speaker suggested that perhaps there were other ways of settling scores, the so-called "sweet revenge." SOON AFTER the lecture, while making a condolence call, I came across an example of what the speaker might have meant by this term. Miriam Festinger Zlotogorski, of blessed memory, died recently in Jerusalem after a long illness. Her husband Abraham and their sons, Zoli and Chaim, members of my congregation, were sitting shiva in an apartment in the Talbieh neighborhood. As is the custom, we talked about the deceased. Miriam grew up near Sighet, Romania, the town where author Elie Wiesel was born. She and her two sisters managed to stay together as they survived Auschwitz and Dachau, sleeping together on the same plank, beneath the same torn blanket. After the war, they were determined to build new lives. In Munich, Miriam met Abraham Zlotogorski, a Pabincer Hassid from Lodz. He, too, had survived Auschwitz and Dachau, as well as the Death March. ALONG WITH the customary serving of light refreshments in a house of mourning, on the coffee table in the Zlotogorski apartment were several unusual dishes: a small oval tray made of pewter and a pair of stemmed pewter dessert cups, about nine inches tall. Chaim pointed out the curious markings on each of the pieces: the insignia of the Nazi SS. After the infamous Death March, Abraham Zlotogorski made his way to Munich. The starved survivor, with only the torn clothes on his back, entered the mess hall of a former Nazi military academy used to train cadets to destroy the Jewish people. Strewn on the long dining table were the pewter tray and the elegant stemmed fruit cups. Abraham and Miriam were married in Munich, and their son Zoli was born. As soon as they could, they moved to the US and settled in the west side of Manhattan. They opened a mom-and-pop candy store and luncheonette. Their son Chaim was born in America. He and Zoli were sturdy, outgoing boys and excellent students, a joy to their parents, who put their horrific pasts behind them. STILL, EVERY Friday night, Miriam took down the stemmed pewter fruit cups from the shelf. She turned them on their heads and into the fluted bottoms set two pristine candles. Then she covered her eyes and recited the Shabbat blessing. When Abraham cut the halla, the oval dish with the Nazi insignia waited on the white table cloth to receive the slices they would pass to their beautiful family. As they sang their Shabbat melodies - those preserved from their childhoods in Europe and those their musical sons brought back from yeshiva classrooms in America - their "sweet revenge" was perfect. The parents followed their Zionist sons Zoli and Chaim to Israel, where a new generation of sabra Zlotogorskis was born. Here, congregants discuss the correct parameters of praying for retribution, and army officers distance themselves from retribution even as they face an enemy who exists only to destroy the State of Israel. Some may scorn such concern as weakness, but we know it is the secret of our resilience. So far, we're still reciting Av Harahamim, as we always have. And as we begin reading the words of Isaiah on the seven Sabbaths of Consolation in this difficult time, we pray not for Divine retribution, but await the Divine comfort promised to our people.