People say what comes around goes around, and others add "and I would like to be there to see it". Is the idea of 'payback' actually a core belief of any religion, especially Judaism, and is that attitude of wishing to witness the repercussions of their acts on another person coming home to roost an act of a wholesome and ethical individual?
There are really two questions here, whether there is payback and whether a "wholesome and ethical individual" should want to see it. As for the first, it is one of the Principles of Orthodox Judaism, at least, that there is reward and punishment for our actions, both as individuals and as communities. In fact, the Talmud is clear that reward and punishment are generally middah ke-neged middah, meaning that the reward or punishment exactly fits the action that incurred it.
The complications of that view are that we never know when those repercussions will come into play, and they may not even come during our lifetimes. One component of how Orthodoxy deals with the question of the success of the evil and the troubles of the righteous is to note that much if not all of our judgment is delayed until the afterlife. In addition, at least regarding punishment, repentance is an option always, so that we might see the crime and not the sincere regret that will lead God to treat the sinner more leniently.
All of that is different, however, than being excited about witnessing the repercussions. While we do speak of wanting to see the defeat of evil and evildoers, that is for the sake of hastening the time when the entire world recognizes the Kingdom of God and strives to build a world according to its principles. We should definitely hope that that comes about through realization and repentance rather than through punishment and destruction, but, if necessary, that latter scenario is certainly an option.
As the Mishnah in Avot notes, there is a verse in Proverbs that warns us not to enjoy the downfall of our enemies, lest God see that and remove that anger from the evildoer. Why is that a problem? Because as long as evil continues to succeed, it will be hard to get people to realize its flaws; we should hope for the eradication of evil, ideally by all evildoers realizing the futility of their ways and repenting, but, if necessary, by their getting what they deserve in such a way as to bring the time we should all long for, the days of God's Kingdom.
The question touches on a number of related issues. Jewish tradition clearly would teach that one should not have an attitude of wishing to witness the punishment of others. The Book of Proverbs (24:17) urges, “If your enemy falls, do not exult; if he trips, let your heart not rejoice.” The Torah, at the beginning of the verse that teaches, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), commands, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge.” The rabbis of the Talmud offer a broad interpretation:
It has been taught: What is revenge and what is bearing a grudge? If one said to his fellow: ‘Lend me your sickle’, and he replied ‘No’, and tomorrow the second comes [to the first] and says: ‘Lend me your axe’! and he replies: ‘I will not lend it to you, just as you would not lend me your sickle’ — that is revenge. And what is bearing a grudge? If one says to his fellow: ‘Lend me your axe’, he replies ‘No’, and on the morrow the second asks: ‘Lend me your garment’, and he answers: ‘Here it is. I am not like you who would not lend me [what I asked for]’ — that is bearing a grudge. [Yoma 23a, Soncino translation]
The extent to which “what goes around comes around” in our world is less clear. Many traditional sources urge people to expect this as they decide how to act. A prime example is Deuteronomy 11:13-21, the second paragraph of the Shema. which tells the Israelite community that if they follow God’s mitzvot (commandments), they will receive amble rainfall and enjoy agricultural comfort, but if they turn away to serve other gods then they will suffer. In the Bible, reward and punishment generally is understood as applying to the community as a whole, but many sources in Jewish tradition teach that reward and punishment happen with each individual (though not necessarily in this world). Maimonides formulates as the eleventh principle of faith that God “rewards him who obeys the commands of the Torah, and punishes him who transgresses its prohibitions.” (in Louis Jacobs, Principles of the Jewish Faith, 350). Jewish tradition understands that happiness tends to correlate with generous and virtuous living. The observations of many individuals, and some psychological studies, seem to support this view. But this correlation is not exact. Sometimes bad things do happen to good people, as evidenced by the observations of many people and by many sources in the Jewish tradition, notably the Book of Job.
This question touches on multiple issues, among them free will, determinism and retribution.
When the Holy One placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and charged them not to eat of the fruit of that one tree, God knew that it is in the nature of human beings to make choices. I would argue that God needed them to pick the fruit, in disobedience to his command, in order for Adam and Eve to become fully human. Had they obeyed, the story would have ended there. Humankind would still be living obediently in the Garden, but they would never have discovered the complexity of the world around them. They would have been perfect angels, but lousy human beings.
The Holy One understands that we will sometimes make good choices and sometimes bad ones. “I call heaven and earth to witness before you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse, choose life that you and your offspring might live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) It is an interesting verse. My colleague, Rabbi Mitch Chefitz, notes that we necessarily live in the face of life and death, and we will inevitably encounter both blessing and curse, but we are granted the freedom to react as we choose. The advice of the Torah is to choose life, and sometimes we do.
Some verses suggest that our freedom is limited. Just before receiving the Ten Commandments the Holy One warns us: (Exodus 20:5-6) “For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.” But our Sages did not understand this literally. The Talmud refocuses our understanding of this verse on our patterns of behavior. B. Sanhedrin 27b teaches: “And has it not been written, “Visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children” (Exodus 34: 7)? That passage speaks of those who adhere to the pattern of deeds of their fathers.” When we persist in sinful behavior, punishment will follow, but the possibility of Teshuva, repentance, is always present.
The difficulty with “what goes around comes around” is that it implies an inevitable consequence. I do not believe that is a Jewish idea. It stands in the way of Teshuva, suggesting that at some point we have lost the opportunity of turning toward the good. God sees the world in its fullness and declares that it is “very good.” (Genesis 1:31) Human beings have the freedom to greet the world anew in every instance.
In regard to wanting “to witness the repercussions,” the Talmud relates an odd tale of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi. There was a Sadducee in his neighborhood who annoyed him greatly over certain religious issues. One day the Rabbi determined to be ready for the proper moment when he could curse the Sadducee. When the moment arrived, however, he was dozing. When he awoke he declared that “we learn from this that it is not proper to act is such a way.” (B. Berachot 7a) It is God’s prerogative to punish those who do wrong, not our role to urge God to do so or to cheer God on. As Rabbi Rothstein noted above, our Sages preferred the teaching of Proverbs, (24:17-18) “If your enemy falls, do not exult; if he trips, let your heart not rejoice, lest the Lord see it and be displeased.”
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