Revenge and grudges: the reasoning behind the prohibitions

By Rabbi Howard Wolk
Parashat Kedoshim

There are 51 mitzvot in the portion of Kedoshim. From one verse to the next, the Torah introduces a different mitzvah. They include interpersonal mitzvot and those between an individual and G-d.

In commenting on the commandment: “Do not take revenge or bear a grudge” (Leviticus 19:18), Rashi quotes a description in the Gemara (Yoma 23a) of a conversation between two neighbors.

One person refuses to lend the other a tool. In reaction, the second one either takes revenge by refusing to lend something of his own or, as an alternative, is willing to give a loan but emphasizes how different he is from his neighbor (“I am better than you are”).

It is quite surprising that the Torah does not react to the initial refusal, while it lists two separate sins in the reaction. Those are: seeking revenge (by not lending to the neighbor) and bearing a grudge (by lending, but accompanying the loan with a snide remark of superiority).

As the Hizkuni asks (Hizkuni: Hezekiah ben Manoah, mid-13th-century commentator): One neighbor at least has some excuse for his revenge, but the other neighbor has no plausible basis for his mean behavior. Why is his action also not prohibited?

The Hizkuni’s answer to this question can help us understand what types of action are within the scope of the mitzvot, as opposed to other matters, which are not included. 

To be jealous, stingy, or a miser may not be good traits, but they are human frailties. It is common for someone to be possessive with respect to property or money. While this may be undesirable, it is part of human nature, and the mitzvot do not relate to it.

However, feelings of revenge and holding a grudge are signs of anger and hate between people, and the Torah wants to discourage them. The basis of the world is in the saying (Psalms 89:3), “The world is built on charity.”

And this requires a friendly relationship between people. 

It is also possible to interpret the fact that the Torah ignores the first person’s actions in a different way, one that is in a sense the opposite of the reasoning I just submitted.

The first neighbor’s refusal to lend his tool is difficult to misunderstand. It may even be that the neighbor himself feels uncomfortable in the way he has reacted to a request from the other person.

The second person, on the other hand, feels that his reaction is justified. He feels that the first person is being punished, and he himself may be quite happy with the lesson he has been able to teach his wayward neighbor. He is not at all aware of the element of hate that drives his own actions. He may even attempt to elevate the status of his actions in his own mind to that of a mitzvah. All of this is a surefire formula for a low probability that this person will ever mend his ways. He is sure that G-d is satisfied with him, and it does not enter his mind that he should change his ways.

There are times when the Torah is willing to ignore undesirable actions and give a person an opportunity to find his own path to improve his ways. 

The first of the neighbors, the one who refused the original request of a loan, might in fact repent on his own.

It is the second one who must be commanded, “Do not take revenge or hold a grudge.”

If not for the command of the Torah, he would never rise up against his inclination by suppressing his anger and acting pleasantly to his neighbor, in a true spirit of peace and societal tranquility.

Kedoshim means holy. Or better, unique and different. We must always conduct ourselves properly and ethically toward others, even when our initial approach or request is rebuffed. 

Rabbi Howard Wolk is community chaplain with Jewish Family Service and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shaare Tefilla.

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