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Home » Vayeshev

Vayeshev: Revenge Is A Boomerang

Submitted by on November 21, 2010 – 2:50 amNo Comment | 5,165 views

It is Fated

It is an irony of fate that acts of revenge frequently backfire. The more spiteful the act, the grander its failure.

One of my favorite stories in Jewish lore is of a wealthy employer who was irritated by his Jewish employee, who frequently praised G-d, rather than the employer, for his well being. The employer decided to terminate the Jew’s employment just before Passover to show him just how difficult the expensive holiday could be without the income he received from the employer.

The Jew continued to place his trust in G-d though he had not a single ruble for the holiday. Then an amazing thing happened. The night before Passover his door opened and a dead monkey was dropped into his home. Horrified, he picked up the monkey, but his horror turned to glee when he noticed a gold coin in the monkey’s mouth. He soon discovered that the monkey’s intestines were lined with gold coins and with a prayer of gratitude he set out to purchase his Passover needs.

The next night found our Jew sitting at his holiday table bedecked in finery. He was conducting a Seder with family and friends when his former employer dropped in for an unexpected visit. He came to gloat over the Jew’s misfortune, but was surprised to find the Jew well stocked and in his holiday best. Where did you find the money, he asked. G-d provided, was the Jew’s simple reply.

When the employer learned how this all happened he began to laugh.Revenge Is A Boomerang - innerstream Indeed, it was his pet monkey that had died the night before and out of spite he instructed his staff to dump the monkey in the Jew’s home. Little did he know that his monkey died from swallowing gold coins, which brought a treasure to the man he wanted to harm.

Sometimes we think we have it in our power to aid or harm another. G-d does not work that way. What is fated to happen is precisely what happens. If we hope to ruin things for another, we stand to be sorely disappointed. If our enemy was not meant to be hurt, our actions cannot hurt them; on the contrary our blow will transform into blessing.

Encircled and Empowered

We see this dynamic play out in Joseph’s dream. In his dream Joseph saw himself and his brothers binding sheaves in the field. Then behold, his sheaf arose and stood upright while the other sheaves encircled it and bowed to it. (1)

Why did the sheaves encircle Joseph’s sheave before bowing to it?

The answer is that by encircling it they enabled it to stand. A sheaf cannot stand upright in the middle of a field for long; sooner or later it is bound to blow over in the wind. But, when it is encircled and supported by an entire bundle of sheaves; the encirclement causes the middle sheave to stand upright.

Joseph’s dream foretold a future when Joseph would become viceroy of Egypt and his brothers would bow to him. The middle sheaf represents Joseph. The other sheaves, which represent his brothers, encircled and empowered him to become viceroy, which is how they came to bow to him.

Joseph was appointed viceroy as a result of being sold by his brothers into slavery. Had he not been sold into slavery, he would not have landed in Egypt and would never have been appointed viceroy of Egypt. They tried to encircle and entrap him; ironically their encirclement became an empowerment. Their act of revenge boomeranged and brought him honor (3)

Don’t Rejoice

King Solomon wrote, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls and when he stumbles do not gladden your heart. Lest G-d see and disapprove and turn back His wrath.” (4)

One of the commentaries explained it this way. G-d runs His world in perfect justice. G-d has a sound reason every time He causes us to fall or stumble. However, just because He made us stumble does not mean He meant for us to be mocked or ridiculed. When our enemy rejoices over our downfall our suffering becomes greater than that to which we were fated and thus G-d turns back his wrath. (5)

The classic commentators explained that rather than turning back his wrath completely G-d turns it unto the one rejoicing. So wrong is it to take pleasure in another’s pain that the pain our enemy experienced is devolved unto us. In other words, revenge is a boomerang. (6) (7)

Indeed, one can see this too play out in the story of Joseph. His brothers sold him into slavery to prove their mastery over him. Yet this very act triggered events that caused them to bow before him, which acknowledged his mastery over them. Not only was Joseph not harmed and not only was he appointed viceroy because of it, those who tried to lower him were themselves lowered.

Can’t Change Fate

We must recall even in the grip of rage that events are orchestrated from above. Acts of revenge are futile. If our victims are not meant to suffer they won’t. That’s all there is to it. In the short term it might appear as if they have been harmed, but over time our revenge will merely benefit them in ways that will surprise and astound us.

There is also a flip side to consider. Just as we cannot cause harm to those who are not fated to suffer so too can no one cause us harm if we are not fated to suffer. If we were moved to take revenge we have likely been greatly aggrieved. The question is why take revenge against the perpetrator if s/he has only accorded us what fate already intended?


  1. Genesis 37:7.
  2. This question becomes especially poignant when you consider that they bowed before him. One does not bow from the side or from behind the king.
  3. This is based on commentary of Maharam Shif ibid. The Hebrew word for circle, Sivuv, and the Hebrew word for cause, Sibah, share the same etymology. Indeed, when one act causes another, the effect is encircled by the cause; permitting no other outcome, but one. Maharam Shif understood the Hebrew word T’subenah as a combination of encircled and caused. That is to say that their act of treachery against Joseph became the cause of his ascent to power. See also Genesis 15: 20.
  4. Proverbs 24: 17-18.
  5. Midrash Shmuel Avos 4:23.
  6. Ibn Ezra, Ralbag and Metzudas David ibid on Proverbs 24: 17-18.
  7. Haman is history’s classic example of this dynamic. Haman built a gallows upon which to hang his enemy, but fate turned his plan on its head. Not only was Mordechai not harmed and not only was he appointed to a high position in the royal court, Haman was hung on the very gallows he had built for Mordechai.