Sweet Revenge by Rabbi Zell


     As one who believes that it is difficult to restrain or even temper anger, I have always been one to dismiss the adage “revenge is sweet”. Until now. With the 82nd anniversary of Kristallnacht being observed this week, I believe that revenge, is very much in order, as we are summoned to recall a heinous event that would culminate in Hitler’s Final Solution, the Holocaust. Such revenge, must, however, be sweet revenge. Sweet revenge, I believe is the converse of tough love. Just as there are times where love must manifest itself in atypical ways to be effective, so too, are there times, when revenge must manifest itself in atypical ways to be effective. Kristallnacht, the precursor of the Holocaust, I believe, is one of those times.
     As one who believes that any and all atonement falls woefully short for the way Germany left an ineradicable stain on humanity, as it attempted to cleanse this world of Jews, I maintain that it is time for Jews, particularly those whose family members were persecuted, and in six million cases murdered, to mount a campaign of sweet revenge against Germany. I believe that it is repugnant for any Jew, to go through life with a chip on one’s shoulder, as a response for a horrific time period in our people’s past, which began with the breaking of glass of synagogues, business, and homes. I believe that the time has come to remind Germans of this generation of the unforgivable, dastardly acts of previous generations.
     The current pandemic notwithstanding, we are living in an age where any number of Jewish families in this country, elect to celebrate a Simcha, particularly a Bar Mitzvah, in Israel. In addition to celebrating in Israel, sweet revenge dictates that Jewish families, particularly families with a German past, where property and businesses were confiscated and family members were wiped out by the Third Reich, celebrate their Simchas in Germany as well. Let the descendants of Hitler’s War machine witness the success of the descendants of those whom Der Fuhrer and his loyal followers wished to eradicate from the face of this earth. Let the Aryans of today eat their hearts out! Let the joyous sounds of Jewish celebrations ring loud and clear. Let Das Deutsche Volk (the German people) see elegantly clad Jewish women walk out of luxury rental cars into elegant catering halls. Let Israeli music blast through the air, far louder than Deutschland Uber Alles was ever played. And let the aroma of kosher food assail the nostrils of the sauerkraut, blutwurst crowd. Let modern day ostentatious Jewish Simchas in Berlin, Dusseldorf, Munich, and other German cities, serve as a reminder to the grandchildren of those who served in the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, that German superiority which shattered the air in November 1938 is being drowned less than a century later, by the sounds of Jews celebrating and reveling.       Reminding Germans that Kristallnacht was not what it was cracked up to be, is sweet revenge.
     As one who has participated in kosher escorted tours of Vienna, Prague, and Budapest, Scotland, and Ireland as well as Italy, I would very much welcome a kosher escorted tour to Germany. There are any number of sites of Jewish interest, such as Heiliger Sand, Europe’s oldest Jewish cemetery in the city of Worms, and the Neue Synagoge in Berlin that are well worth the trip. There is however a caveat. The kosher escorted tour must be first-class in every way. Let American Jews travel through Germany on luxurious motor coaches, preferably with large signs in German on the sides of the vehicles welcoming their Jewish guests. Eight decades ago, the  Omas and Opas of today’s generation lamely protested “We saw nothing”. Now it is time for their grandchildren to stand wide-eyed in amazement, as luxurious motor coaches roll through the streets of Munich en route to Dachau. Better yet, let them also hear the Partisan Song or similar Yiddish music of the Holocaust blare through the loudspeakers of the luxurious motor coach, as it makes its way to the Todes Lager or Extermination Camp. I have every confidence in the world, that the Germans will comprehend the Yiddish lyrics. Let Kosher escorted luxury tours break all record for tourism, as our response to the broken glass of Kristallnacht. The Third Reich failed dismally. Let us show them that hose with whom they were so obsessed, succeeded admirably.  Let das Deutsche volk (the German people) know that we Jews have “arrived”. That’s sweet revenge.
     Rav Archa Karchinaah (Talmud: Berachot 33a) points out, that “revenge” (Psalm 94:1) appears between two different names of the Divine. In his opinion, revenge if properly executed can be extraordinary. I cannot help but feel, that the revered rabbinic sage would wholeheartedly agree with, and even endorse sweet revenge.


by Rabbi Shawn Zell

     Over half a century ago, the Zell home was introduced to its first oil painting. Unsurprisingly, given the Eastern European roots of my parents, the painting was a  Shtetl scene of a Vasser Tregger or Water Carrier. The Vasser Tregger was the precursor of the Ice Man. The Ice Man was a feature of “once upon a time in America”, where a poverty-stricken individual, armed with metal tongs, earned pennies, shlepping blocks of ice to people’s apartments so that the food in the icebox would remain cold; The Vasser Tregger was a feature of “once upon a time in the shtetl”. Armed with two buckets, connected by a yoke to be worn around the neck, the Vasser Tregger would walk down to the well, lower the buckets into the well and fill the buckets with water. Staggering under the heavy burden, the Vasser Tregger would then trudge to various houses, thereby providing “home delivery” at a time and place, where indoor plumbing was still light-years away. Like the Ice Man, the Vasser Tregger earned mere kopecks. Therein, the similarity ended. The Ice Man delivered a commodity that preserved food; the Vasser Tregger delivered a commodity that preserved lives.
     As human drama unfolded in the Torah, during the meeting between Judah and Joseph, the Midrash (Tanchumah VaYigash, Chapter V) introduces a profound saying: “The rope follows the bucket”. A most apt, but non-literal translation in the colloquial English usage would be: “every dog has its day”. It would be wonderful in romanticizing the shtetl, to believe that in Shtetl life, the Baal Agoleh (wagoner) and the Vasser Tregger were treated the same as the Rebbe and the Noggid (magnate). They were not. Quite the opposite! The Vasser Tregger and the Baal Agoleh were looked down upon and regarded as a necessary part of society, who were typically not the ones to be invited to a Shabbat or Festival meal. Sometimes, justice does prevail, even if it takes two or three generations. It is not unheard of for descendants of a  Vasser Tregger to become influential individuals in contemporary America. Nochem the Vasser Tregger may have eked out a meager sustenance by pulling heavy ropes attached to water-filled buckets from the well. His namesake, Norm Trager, is a “go-to” New York power broker, who lives a lifestyle of the rich and famous, because of his ability to “pull strings”. “The rope follows the bucket”.
     It was the prophet Isaiah (XL:15) who originated the well-known expression “a drop in the bucket”. That expression comes to life each year on Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath immediately following Tisha B’Av. “Rest assured”, the prophet comforts us. “All the nations (that did you harm) are like a drop in the bucket, as far as G-d is concerned”. Long before the Vasser Trgger of the Shtetl, there were other Vasser Treggers in the history of our people. Although the Torah does not provide details, it is unfathomable for there not to have been Vasser Treggers during the years of our people’s enslavement in Egypt. In addition to those who were constructing the pyramids, and in addition to those who were those fabricating bricks, in all likelihood, there were Vasser Treggers as well, to provide water to sustain the lives of the Israelite slaves toiling under the hot Egyptian sun. But the Vasser Treggers of our people’s horrific experience in Egypt, along with the Vasser Treggers providing precious refreshments during other eras in history, where our people were forced to do slave labor, are also but a drop in the bucket when compared to the present. The Vasser Treggers of yore have been replaced by Wonder Workers currently working in Israel. This explains how Israel provides over 150 countries technological know-how concerning water desalination and preservation.
     On Thursday, we usher in the Hebrew month of Shvat. Typically, Aquarius, the Water Bearer,  the Zodiac symbol (and no, Judaism is not, nor has it ever been averse to Zodiac symbols) for Shvat, receives short shrift. For those who focus on Zodiac symbols, perhaps instead of merely regarding it as Aquarius, it could be seen as a Vasser Tregger. By doing so, it would spur us to learn more about the role of the Vasser Tregger in our people’s history. Thanks to my parents, the Vasser Tregger depicted in the oil painting hanging over the sofa in the living room in my childhood home, will remain alive in my memory for the rest of my life.  

No Refunds or Exchanges

by Rabbi Shawn Zell

     As one who grew up very much aware of what we call the “shmatte business” (all four females in my mother’s family were married to men who owned a clothing store) I always associated the last week of December along with the first weeks of January as “return season”. It was a period of time when disgruntled female customers (forgive the sexism) brought back the blouse or negligee or pantsuit that Santa brought them, asking for cash instead. Even though it has been several decades, the scars do not seem to have healed. The return season that bedeviled the previous generation of clothiers in my family continues to haunt me, as a man of the cloth. As such, I feel that would do us well to ponder a deeper meaning of the term: “returns” and along with it oft mistaken synonyms “payback” and “what goes around comes around” in the hope of gaining a better understanding and a deeper appreciation of that which seems to be destined our way, in life.
     Human memory is short when it comes to favors and acts of kindness. The difference between a benefactor and a malefactor is that the former is seldom remembered, while the latter is seldom forgotten. Divine memory however is not human memory. Any daily davener paying attention to the prayers will tell you that G-d remembers the kindnesses of previous generations and repays in kind, at times to subsequent generations. The great sage Shimon ben Azzai understood this implicitly when he taught that “a mitzvah draws a mitzvah”. Notice if you will, that the sage never said that a mitzvah “brings about” a mitzvah. In using the Hebrew term “gorreret” – drags – he intimated that the return for the mitzvah might take far longer than we would like. The return could very well come about after one’s lifetime. Should it ever occur to someone that G-d is inexplicably kind or good to him, it might very well be that G-d is simply returning the favor from a previous generation.
     So too is the case with cruelty. Only instead of returning any favor, we choose to understand this as “payback”. Return suggests reward; payback suggests punishment. Humans, with a keen sense of justice, are not likely to let bygones be bygones when they have been unjustly wronged. Given the choice of being happy or feeling vindicated, most humans will choose to feel vindicated, even if it costs them, time, energy, and peace of mind. G-d also believes in “payback”. Not content to let bygones be bygones, we are taught (Exodus 34:7) G-d will “pay a little visit” even to the third and fourth generation, to set the record straight, when it comes to an indiscretion of a long-gone family member. Our culture is one, where we are taught and conditioned to “leave something” to the next generation after we depart this world. Typically, we understand this to mean money as well as other assets of monetary value. For those of us who take “payback” seriously, we would well be careful not to leave behind any loose ends or unfinished business before taking leave of this world. Just because we are safe from any earthly court, doesn’t mean we or our descendants are safe from a heavenly court.
     Favors and “payback” are time-release responses. Favors and “payback” test our patience as well as our belief in G-d.  We question why our descendants ought to receive punishments that should have been directed toward us personally. We neglect to question why our descendants receive the rewards that we deserve. Not so, “what goes around comes around”. As we sow, so too do we reap. In Christian theology, this is seen as the Golden Rule. Gold however loses its value, when we are repaid in kind for cruelty and insensitivity. Perhaps this should be referred to as the Human Rule. Perhaps Hillel (and Confucius) understood it better in the negative, by warning us what not to do, in that what goes around comes around. Unlike favors and “payback”, what goes around comes around guarantees us “same life service”. We, and not previous or future generations receive what is due us. Because of what we did, we – and no one else – have been punished or rewarded. Much to our delight or chagrin, we are secure in the knowledge that a system of fairness and equity exists after all.
     Reports indicate that items purchased on-line have been sent back in epic proportions this season. Perhaps so. Merchandise however must never be confused with conduct or deeds. Unlike merchandise, there are neither refunds nor exchanges for conduct or deeds. When it comes to behavior, there are only returns, “payback” and what goes around comes around.