As Mrs. Greenstein walks home from the grocery store laden down with her weighty luggage of edibles, the rain pattering annoyingly upon her unprotected head, she casts her eyes upward in a sudden heavenly supplication.
As Mrs. Greenstein walks home from the grocery store laden down with her weighty luggage of edibles, the rain pattering annoyingly upon her unprotected head, she casts her eyes upward in a sudden heavenly supplication. Behold, her prayers remarkably take form in the car of her neighbor, Mrs. Blumengart, and Mrs. Greenstein anxiously anticipates a much-needed ride home. However, despite making direct eye contact, Mrs. Greenstein is rapidly passed by her "previous" friend and receives a small wave of freezing water as compensation. Confused, she watches her neighbor's car turn into their street a half mile in the distance. Bewildered, wet, and just slightly angry, she trudges home.
The next day, as fate would have it, their roles suddenly reversed. Mrs. Greenstein drives comfortably through the rain and spots a drenched Mrs. Blumengart mopping the pavement with her packages. Should she drive by, should she act like she doesn't see her, or should she stop and say in that insinuatingly sweet voice, "Anything I can do to help a neighbor out?"
In this week's portion, in the Torah's usual succinct and precise brevity, we are exhorted, "You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge" (Leviticus 19:18). As our rabbis explain, revenge refers to repaying wrongdoing, while bearing a grudge refers to mentioning or hinting to a person who has wronged you before that you are doing him a favor unlike his failure to do so previously. How can we avoid this most natural urge? Also, doesn't the person deserve it? Thirdly, if revenge is so despised by the Torah, how is it that Hashem is occasionally referred to in Scriptures as a "vengeful G-d"? Lastly, to what length does this powerful prohibition extend?
The Chofetz Chaim, the saintly leader of world Jewry at the turn of the century, provides a telling parable to explain how one can overcome the inflammatory desire for vengeance. Imagine someone was looking for a certain person named Reuven whom he has never met. If, during his interviews of random people, someone were to respond that his name is not Reuven but rather Shimon, is it logical that the searcher should become angry at Shimon just because his name is not Reuven? Of course not - the searcher simply asked the wrong person. Similarly, if Hashem has decided that I deserve a certain reward, would it make sense for me to get angry at somebody just because they turn out not to be the divinely appointed vehicle for that goodness I deserve? Of course not - once again, I simply asked the wrong person. If Hashem wills for positive things to happen to a person, there is no doubt that they will most certainly occur. Somebody's refusal to benefit him will never block Hashem's fountain of goodness.
Conversely, the Sefer HaChinuch, a classic anonymous composition on the 613 mitzvot, explains that one of the roots or reasons for the prohibition against revenge is because it manifests a degree of distrust in divine providence. If one recognizes that someone who has wronged him is only an intermediary of Hashem's divine scheme of warnings and reprimands, and that his own sin is the true source of his ills, one wouldn't dream of attacking the pawn, but would focus his efforts on checkmating the king, his own sinful behavior. By reminding ourselves that all the apparent evils that befall us come about only because Hashem wills it, and not merely as a result of a person's desire to cause us pain, we can overcome the passion for revenge against the person and instead focus on bettering ourselves and becoming more worthy of Hashem's blessings.
To help us understand the problems with demanding vengeance, the saintly 13th century commentary Rabbi Yehudah HaChassid presents a brilliant understanding of a preliminary aspect to the flood narrative. As the generation of the flood reaches the epitome of evil, we are informed that Hashem's "spirit will not contend with Man evermore since he is but flesh" (Genesis 6:3). Rabbi Yehudah HaChassid explains that although there were individuals who asked Hashem to wreak vengeance for the evils that others had perpetrated against them, Hashem responds that He will not judge the wrongdoers and carry out their deserved punishment. The reason for this is revealed several verses later, "because the land was filled with vice" (ibid. 6:13). If Hashem would comply with each person's pleas for vengeance against his neighbor, Hashem would also have to avenge the deeds that those same people making the request had done to others in order to maintain fairness and justice. Since the land was filled with corruption, this would lead to unilateral punishment because everyone deserved punishment for their misdeeds.
Now we can understand the verse - Hashem said He would not judge Man (the wrongdoer) because the supplicant is also flesh, himself a mere mortal deserving of punishment. Therefore, Hashem took no heed to their entreatings for vengeance since the result would be unilateral punishment. Eventually, however, Hashem fulfilled their wishes, heard their prayers, and exterminated them all. It is for this reason that Hashem is called the G-d of vengeance because only He can repay a person measure for measure, according to strict justice, while Man cannot, because if a person chooses strict justice he himself would be deserving of punishment. When Hashem created the world, He gave the divine attribute of mercy prominence over strict justice in order to preserve the world, but if we demand strict justice for others then we may be treated in kind. However, as the Sefer HaChinuch explains, if we choose to treat each other with mercy, forego our grudges, and repay apparent cruelty with kindness, Hashem too will treat us with mercy and forgive us for our sins.
Now that we have explored the senselessness of revenge and the amazing opportunities involved in refraining from it, we must understand to what extent must we be wary of the clutches of this sin. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in his 18th century magnum opus on Jewish ethics, Messilat Yesharim, comments on the apparent theme repetition in this week's portion. The Torah seems to hammer away as it commands, "Do not hate your friend in your heart. . .Do not avenge or bear a grudge. . .Love your neighbor as yourself" (ibid. 19:18-19). Why does the Torah seemingly force-feed us with these very similar warnings? Rabbi Luzzatto proposes that the Torah is counteracting the various stages of the wily and cunning evil inclination. When one is hurt by another person or refused a favor, one's first feeling is a desire to fight back by repaying in turn with a lack of kindness. Or even if one does act nicely by doing that person a favor, it assuredly won't be a large favor. Or even if it is, one doesn't want to give it graciously with a smile. Certainly, one would not renew a friendship with that person. Or, at the very least, not as intense a friendship as they once shared. It is for every step of this compromising path that the Torah demands one not to hate one's fellow Jew in his heart, not to seek revenge, and finally to love him as oneself, wholly and with no reservations. Although, in Rabbi Luzzatto's words, this is easy only for angels, one must nevertheless strive to extricate any hint of hate, anger, and coolness from one's heart.
The powerful emotion of revenge plagues even the wisest and kindest of hearts, and it is only by battling it with body, mind, and soul that it can truly be overcome. One must mentally realize that Man is only a pawn of Hashem and would never be able to hurt another person if it wasn't divinely decreed. One must also realize one's personal guilt for causing others pain and refrain from wishing the exercise of true judgment on that person, for who would truly be innocent of evil! Thirdly, one must force every unwilling shred of his body, even one's tone of voice and body language, to show no sign of anger or ill will.
Of course, by now you have realized that Mrs. Blumengart had lost her contacts and could hardly see the car in front of her, much less her neighbor's face. This reminds us that, lastly, one must judge all Jews favorably because, who knows, maybe the person did not intend you any harm at all.
Ranon Cortell, who hails from Atlanta and is a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington while attending the University of Maryland.
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