Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
The Place of Healing MercyThe Place of Healing Mercy

The Place of Healing Mercy

To become fully human, Diane Weber Bederman reminds us, we must give our animal lust for vengeance to the God who loves

Diane Weber Bederman
7 minute read

To appeal to God's vengeance is to appeal to God's justice.

When people ask me if I believe in God, I am compelled to say yes. My belief in God — in His teachings, His commandments, His justice and mercy — keep me alive. Keep me sane. Centred. Grounded. And the rituals, symbols, liturgy and prayers that bring us to God, and that bring God closer to us, help me navigate the world and find my place in it.

There is a beautiful set of Jewish prayers called The Amidah, prayed daily in silence. The Amidah is also known as the "Standing Prayer": we stand before God, before the open Ark of the Covenant, the home of the Torah, the Laws of Moses, the Book filled with the words of love and comfort from God. And though we say the prayers individually, we say them in the plural: "we." We praise, petition and thank God on behalf of our people to remind us that we are one people, together from the moment we all stood at the foot of the mountain in the desert 3,500 years ago.

The last prayer reads:

"Grant peace, welfare, blessing, grace,
loving kindness and mercy unto us
and unto all Israel your people.
Bless us, O our Father, one and all,
with the light of your countenance.…
May it please you to bless your people
Israel at all times
and in every hour with your peace.
Blessed are you, O Lord, who blesses his people
Israel with peace.

And then comes the moment for personal petition to God, our own individual cry for help. And I so remember my cry from the depths of my soul when I was in great pain, lost and confused and terribly hurt. And I stood in the synagogue before my God and the God of my people, the God of my father, whose name was Abraham, and my mother, whose name was Sarah. And I would beseech Him to hurt those who had hurt me.

"My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully. Let my soul be silent to those who curse me; let my soul be as dust to all. Open my heart to Your Torah, and let my soul eagerly pursue Your commandments. As for all those who plot evil against me, hasten to annul their counsel and frustrate their design. Let them be as chaff before the wind; let the angel of the Lord thrust them away. That Your beloved ones may be delivered, help with Your right hand and answer me. Do it for the sake of Your Name; do it for the sake of Your right hand; do it for the sake of Your Torah; do it for the sake of Your holiness. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before You, Lord, my Strength and my Redeemer."

And I would say this prayer and I would feel relief. Because I knew that "vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord." I could feel the hate seep out, flow away, because I had let the hate go to God, who had the shoulders to bear it. And I know that is how my Christian patients felt when I would say to them when they were filled with anger, hurt, pain or fear: "Put your burden down at the foot of the Cross." Relief.

"Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord."

This is my favourite line from the Bible. The one I hold dear, ever so close to my heart. It has saved me from myself. It is a statement over the years that saved me from falling down into the abyss or the arms of the barbarians, into Dante's inferno — the circles of hell.

"Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord" has kept me from succumbing to unbridled hate and bloodlust, and the sickness that comes and then festers in my soul. To appeal to God's vengeance is to appeal to God's justice.

We are part of nature. We still have one foot firmly connected to the animal kingdom while we are called to reach for the Seraphim with an outstretched hand. It is in that space between the gnat and the Seraphim that we live most of our lives.

We have within us the same brain as the alligator, as all reptiles: the amygdala. This is the place where fear, anger and anxiety all live together, deep within, ready to trigger our baser survival instincts. Despite the fact that we have developed a moral prefrontal cortex, the amygdala continues to send out messages, trying to control us and prevent us from thinking before acting, dragging us back to the savage waiting within. It is strictly survival instinct at play. It calls to us.

"Attack before you are attacked. Kill before you are killed."

The desire for personal survival, for protection of one's closest kin, is so great that it often takes little to stir up anger and fear of "the other" that leads to behaviour that is reminiscent of the beasts in the jungle. Christian theologian Miroslav Volf, recipient of the 2002 Grawemeyer Award for his book Exclusion and Embrace, wrote that "in a world of violence we are faced with an inescapable alternative: either God's violence or human violence." He came to this conclusion after living and teaching in the former Yugoslavia throughout the ethnic wars of the 1990s. He saw the result of a hate that is so great it calls to the deepest part of our psyche for vengeance.

The morals, values and ethics that God gave to the Jews in the desert to share with the world serve to fight against that small but powerful amygdala and its cry for blood. They are the moral bulwark against the instinct to kill. And so we are told, and often, that "vengeance is mine," sayeth the Lord, because we cannot live in community if we are overtaken by our animal instincts. We cannot live with others if we let bloodlust control our actions.

"Vengeance is mine," sayeth the Lord, gives me a place to put those harsh, harmful feelings. It is a place to lay my anger when it is eating me up inside. Anger toward another keeps us in a relationship — a rather unhealthy one. While we hold on to anger for another, they hold on to us. Without saying a word, they control how we think and feel. They have the power to lead us away from green pastures and still waters. They can take us down a path back in time before we were taught to care for the other as we care for our brother.

If we tell ourselves that vengeance belongs to God, we can, over time, let go of the rage, the anger, the poison of hatred that enslaves us to those who have caused our pain, and so provide ourselves a space for a healthier view of life.

Maimonides, the great 12th century philosopher and one of the foremost rabbinical experts, also known affectionately as the Rambam, wrote: "As long as one nurses a grievance and keeps it in mind, one may come to take vengeance." For this reason, the Torah tells us not to carry a grudge. We are to put the event behind us. Eradicate it. Leave it in the hands of God.

In the Bible, there are 91 words for God. And one is HaMakom: The Place. Our Jewish Sages say, "God doesn't have a place; rather He is The Place of the Universe."

It is a safe place. "God is everywhere and everything: physical and spiritual, matter and energy. All of this makes up the oneness of God."

It is The Place to which we turn for comfort when a loved one dies. We say to the mourner that HaMakom should comfort him. HaMakom: The Place. Put your anger and hurt and confusion and sorrow in that Place.

God: The Place. It is the mountain to which Abraham took Isaac, where Abraham built an altar to sacrifice his son. It is The Place where Jacob rested his head on a pillow of stone. And Jacob awoke from his dream and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it." And he named that Place "Bethel." The House of God. The Place.

We are living at a time when our anger has once again been unleashed through acts of unspeakable barbarity by one human being to another. We are in danger of losing our humanity if we do not let go of our hate, if we do not find a place to soothe our souls.

Miroslav Volf taught that: "Rage is [a] natural first response. It is also an appropriate response if we do it before the God of infinite love and justice. It is how I read the Imprecatory Psalms, like Psalm 137, which pronounce blessing on those who seize and dash the Babylonian little ones against the rock. Those words may sound vengeful. But what is significant is that, this being a ritual prayer, [one] is giving his anger over to God. In the same way, we need to bring our rage before God and the Cross of Christ. Divine grace does not preclude justice being done; justice is an integral part of reconciliation."

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches the same thing: "The search for perfect justice is not for us, here, now. It is — as Moses taught the Israelites in the great song he sang at the end of his life — something that faith demands we leave to God, who alone knows the human heart, who alone knows what is just in a world of conflicting claims, and who will establish perfect justice at a time, and in a way, of His choosing, not ours."

The miracle of God is the ability to turn feelings of rage into a place of tranquillity.

God is The Place where I rest my weary head and replenish my soul.

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