Reviewing Revenge

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

In a long list of mitzvoth in this parshah, some between man and his fellow man and others between man and God, we find interspersed throughout, almost after every mitzvah, “I am Hashem/God.” Among these mitzvoth, the ones we will be discussing today are, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart… You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your fellow as yourself – I am Hashem.” Are the prohibitions against taking revenge and bearing a grudge followed by the positive command to love one’s fellow as oneself one general mitzvah or three distinct mitzvoth? Further, what is the connection between these mitzvoth and “I am Hashem,” asks Rabbi Mordechai Ezrachi. Rabbi Reiss asks an even more difficult question. These laws involve not action so much as emotion. How can the Torah command someone on these natural feelings?

Since we are indeed commanded to control and override these negative impulses, we must first understand what is included in these mitzvoth and then we must search out techniques that can help us fulfill these mitzvoth.

In The Making of a Mentsch, Moshe Walter uses the Gemorrah and the Rishonim to explain these prohibitions. Taking revenge involves acting against one’s fellow in retaliation for his action. Bearing a grudge, on the other hand, is acting positively, but voicing or feeling, a “holier than thou” attitude, saying aloud or internally seething, “even though you didn’t lend me your tool, I am still lending you my tool.”

However, continues Rabbi Walter, there are exceptions to these definitions. While replicating your neighbor’s negative response to an earlier request constitutes classic revenge, reacting in the heat of the moment, whether to a personal slur or a physical or financial attack, is not considered revenge. However, absorbing the slur and refusing to respond are considered praiseworthy. Also, if previous history has proven that your neighbor has a habit of negligence and returns your items in a damaged state, [or not returning monies lent, CKS] you are within your rights to protect your property and refuse to lend him something again.

Rabbi Castle further develops these concepts. Taking revenge also includes both speaking or listening to negative speech/loshon horo about a person. Further, there is a time factor involved. These prohibitions take effect only after a day has passed and the “aggrieved party” has had time to calm down. But continues nursing his grudge.

Chochmat Hamatzpun brings a different perspective to our discussion. He suggests that these laws are really about two types of personalities. There are those who live according to their nature, and there are those who work on themselves to try to improve their nature. Hashem created our nature and gave us the tools to improve our nature through the Torah.

In Alei Shor, Rabbi Wolbe takes this idea one step further. The overriding mitzvah to love and fear Hashem should infuse all our mitzvah performance with the desire to emulate Hakodosh Boruch Hu, not just in action, but although in thought and feeling. And these are mitzvoth that are incumbent on everyone from bar and bat mitzvah age on. While it is human nature to want to deny a favor to someone who has refused us, the key is in the words near the end of the verse, writes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah, “You shall love your fellow as yourself.”

Rabbi Mordechai Ezrachi quotes the Talmud Yerushalmi which presents an analogy. Just as you wouldn’t take revenge on your right hand for having [accidentally] cut the left hand, so should we refrain from taking revenge on another, for we must love him as we love ourselves, as if he is another part of our single body. How can we reach this level? By doing favors for him, teaches Rav Dessler, for love grows when we give, not when we take.

What blocks us from truly feeling for the other? It is our ego that blocks us, that separates us from each other. If we work on tempering this characteristic, we can remove the barriers between us and truly feel for each other.

Citing Rabbenu Yonah, Rabbi Kushelevsky shows how all the parts of our verse are related. When we smash our egos and open our hearts to others, we create the closeness between us. To create a closeness with Hashem requires that same moving beyond one’s personal ego and accepting Hashem so that He becomes part of our lives and part of our selves.

Letitcha Elyon makes a profound and comforting observation. One must first love himself and see in himself the reflection of God’s image. Only then he will recognize God’s image in the other, a further reflection of self. From that perspective, he can grow to love the other as he loves himself.

If we now approach our verse from the end, from, “I am Hashem,” we will gain a different perspective on the prohibitions against revenge and carrying a grudge. Having these feelings indicates a lack of emunah/faith in Hakodosh Boruch Hu. If we have true faith, we realize that everything in our lives is orchestrated by Hashem, reminds us Rabbi Kestenbaum in Olam Hamiddos quoting the Sefer Hachinuch. Strengthening our emunah will provide an antidote to these negative emotions. Hashem treats us with love, even when he sends us pain, and the one who inflicted that financial or psychological pain was only Hashem’s messenger. Everything in our lives, both what we perceive as positive and what we perceive as negative, comes from Hashem’s love for each of us.

Rabbi Matlin in Netivot Chaim brings an interesting example of this kind of emunah from our Matriarchs. Rabbi Matlin reminds us of the dialogue between Rachel and Leah. Reuven has brought his mother Leah some mandrake leaves. Rachel asks her sister if she can have some of these flowers. Leah answers in what seems to be a cruel, retaliatory way, “Isn’t it enough that you have taken my husband, that now you also want these mandrake leaves?” Rabbi Matlin assumes that Leah was aware that Rachel stepped back from her own marriage to Yaakov and revealed the secret code to Leah. According to Rabbi Matlin, Leah was telling Rachel that it was not Rachel who had given Yaakov as a husband to Leah, but rather Hashem. Hashem would have found a different way for Leah to marry Yaakov if Rachel had not devised this plan as Hashem’s emissary. If you want to grow in the quality of emunah, you must always remember that it is I, Hashem Who runs the world. There is no situation worth harboring a grudge over or seeking revenge over, writes Rabbi Reiss, citing the Rambam.

When we try to seek revenge against someone who has wronged us, we are acting like a child whose tower of blocks was just knocked over, writes the Kli Yakar. Like the child running to his mother to punish the “culprit,” so are we trying to punish the one who hurt us, even when we know the damage is either temporary or meant for our own good in the long term.

It is not enough just to forgive, writes Rabbi Reiss. We must seek to do good for the other, to emulate Hashem. If we can access our feeling of love for Hakodosh Boruch Hu, our sense of ego will dissipate. Anger and jealousy will be replaced by love. Love is an intense emotion that can be transformed into hate if circumstances permit. Use that love for Hashem as a vehicle to love others, advises the Chizkuni.

This idea works very powerfully in the reverse as well, writes Rabbi Shimon Laufer in Step by Step. We can only learn to love Hashem deeply when we establish a deep, strong, and committed relationship to another human being, whether a spouse, a good friend, or a rabbi. Perhaps that is why, after creating Adam, Hashem proposed created a helpmeet for him, “For it is not good that Man be alone.” The human relationship was a necessary prerequisite for the spiritual relationship with Hashem. That’s why the Torah adds, “Love your fellow as yourself,” before concluding with, “I am Hashem.”

When we fully appreciate that Hashem loves me and orchestrates everything in my life, we will realize that if this fellow refuse to lend me the tool I requested, or refuses to do me the favor I need, it is because Hashem has not chosen him to be the emissary to deliver this necessity to me. With that realization, I can never bear a grudge against the other for not acquiescing to my request.

In conclusion, Rabbi Reiss has the best response to someone who has wronged you: Use this experience to become a better person. That will be the greatest revenge.